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Institutional Partnerships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics


The Math and Science Partnership (MSP) program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) promotes exemplary partnerships to pioneer and advance high quality mathematics and science education at all educational levels. Partnerships in the MSP unite institutions of higher education with local school districts and other organizations having a stake in educational excellence.

Within the Partnerships, higher education faculty in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have an essential role. Their significant intellectual engagement is one of the characteristics that distinguish the MSP from other K-12 education reform efforts. Another distinguishing characteristic is the emphasis on the use and production of evidence throughout the life cycle of the Partnerships. This is a critical aspect of the work of the MSP as a research and development effort.

The first cohort of partnerships began work in fall 2003.  This module on STEM educational partnerships presents selected learnings or findings drawn from the literature at large and from the MSP in particular, to inform future work in the domain of STEM educational partnerships.  Over time, this module will be revised as a more effective learning tool and, as additional work on the MSP partnerships progresses, the module will be expanded and additional links added.  The module is organized into three parts:

  1. What do we already know from the extant literature about partnerships?
  2. What is the MSP contributing to the knowledge base on partnerships?
  3. What are some important questions worthy of future investigation?

I What do we already know from the extant literature about partnerships?

A brief summary of a small number of selected learnings follows, with links to more detailed discussions.  These partnership findings or learnings are summarized from Partnership Implementation in the MSP Program (Scherer, 2006), a substudy of the MSP Program Evaluation, and all references in this section are to literature cited there.


The general consensus in the literature is that to be successful, partners should either have a pre-existing relationship or be able to devote time during the initial planning phases getting to know one another and building a relationship. Three areas are key (Rackham et al, 1996): (1) impact, or the ability of the partnership to produce results and add value; (2) intimacy, or the degree of closeness of the partners within the partnership and how well they relate to one another; and (3) vision, the shared or common goal of what the partnership can achieve and how it will do so.

Inclusive and diverse membership in the partnership is key to its success. All those who endorse the mission/goals of the partnership should be able to join, and the two power extremes must be invited – the most powerful as well as the least powerful (Wolff, 1997).

Agreement on goals, mission, and values is an important dimension of a successful partnership. “Clear plans, attainable goals, measurable objectives, and community ownership are critical to the success of the coalition” (Birkby, 2003).

Ongoing operations must receive attention. The partnership must come to agreement on an overall organizational structure; set up and implement an action plan and operating guidelines; identify key leadership and resources (staff, facilities, etc.); and create a mechanism to communicate effectively.

Partners’ organizational identity and unique strengths and resources form the foundation of the partnership. It is important that each partner maintain its unique organizational structure and goals. If lost, partners lose the capacity to maximize their contributions (Brinkerhoff, 2002).

Characteristics of partnerships often cited in the literature as associated with quality of partnership include (1) mutuality and trust, (2) leadership, (3) the obtaining of financial and other resources, and (4) collaboration and mechanisms of communication.

Technical assistance systems
are vital to implementation and can provide the intermediate support needed to develop organizational infrastructure and design appropriate interventions (Mitchell et al, 2002).

It is essential that there be a theoretical link between the activities of the coalition and its outcomes (Connell et al, 1995). Without such a link, it will be difficult to attribute observed changes to the partnership.

In addition to overall outcomes, it is essential to assess the functioning partnership itself. In evaluating partnerships, some effective instruments exist, while some others can be adapted or modified for evaluation purposes.

II What is MSP contributing to the knowledge base on partnerships?
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Partnership Implementation in the MSP Program (Scherer, 2006), a substudy of the  NSF-funded external, third party MSP Program Evaluation, has documented preliminary evidence by MSP projects of their attention to assessing or evaluating the partnerships themselves.

In addition, an MSP Research, Evaluation, and Technical Assistance (MSP-RETA) project has been funded (EHR 0231904) to examine “Alternative Approaches to Evaluating STEM Education Partnerships:  A Review of Evaluation Methods and Application of an Interorganizational Model.”  In their paper “Finding Value and Meaning in the Concept of Partnership,” Gordon Kingsley and Michael Waschak address the question “What is a partnership?”.  They describe four distinct ways in which members of an electronic Delphi panel conceptualized partnership:

  1. Entity-based conceptualization – “partnership is comprised of memberships, boundaries, and consists of formal and informal organizing structures designed to achieve specific functions.”
  2. Process-based conceptualization – “relationships are built up over time to enhance levels of trust and cooperation.”
  3. Agreement-based conceptualization – characterized by “predetermined goals aimed at improving performance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.” 
  4. Conceptualization “as a venue or opportunity to interact.” 

Members of the Delphi panel were STEM professionals experienced in educational partnerships between K-12 and higher education, such as those required in the MSP program.      

III What are some important questions worthy of future investigation?
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Partnerships occur in many different settings, with widely differing purposes.  Business partnerships, public-private partnerships, and community-based coalitions, for example, have goals and strategies as varied as the organizational partners themselves.  They have contributed much to the body of knowledge about partnerships writ large and to the available instruments for assessing functioning partnerships.   

STEM educational partnerships, especially those that unite institutions of higher education with K-12 schools and districts to improve student outcomes, are of particular interest and importance to the MSP program.  The literature indicates that the evaluation of the long-term effectiveness of partnerships on targeted issues is a mixed record, with many inherent difficulties (Scherer, 2006).  The evaluation of partnerships, especially STEM educational partnerships, and the characteristics that contribute to their effectiveness thus remain domains for significant investigation.           

Major Sources
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html pdf Kingsley, G. and M. Waschak, “Finding Value and Meaning in the Concept of Partnership”, presented at Evaluation Summit: Evidence-based findings from MSPs, Minneapolis, MN, September 2005, supported by NSF EHR- 0231904.
html pdf Scherer, J., “National Science Foundation Math and Science Program Evaluation (MSP-PE): Partnership Implementation in the MSP Program ,” COSMOS Corporation, 2006, supported by NSF Contract # 0456995.
html pdf The Consortium for Building Evaluation Capacity, Utah State University, “Evidence: An Essential Tool – Planning for and Gathering Evidence Using The Design-Implementation-Outcomes (DIO) Cycle of Evidence” (NSF 05-31), supported by NSF EHR-0233382.