12 Cultivating Strategic Partnerships to Transform STEM Education

Cara Margherio, Kerice Doten-Snitker, Julia Williams, Elizabeth Litzler, Eva Andrijcic, and Sriram Mohan

1 Cultivating Strategic Partnerships to Transform STEM Education

Educational transformation requires more than an innovative idea in order to succeed. The scope and scale of systemic change points to the essential need for strategic partnerships across disciplines and departments. Strategic partnerships are relationships among parties having joint rights and responsibilities as they work together to achieve common goals that could not be achieved by either party working alone (Barnett et al., 2010; Hoffman-Johnson, 2007). These relationships can be valuable tools for creating effective, sustainable change within higher education, providing a variety of benefits such as reducing costs through shared resources (Amey, 2010; Barnett et al., 2010; Worrall, 2007); improving the professional development of students (Buys & Bursnall, 2007); and expanding the impact of successful programs (Estrada et al., 2016). Despite the growing interest in forming strategic partnerships, the majority of these partnerships break down and fail (Eddy, 2010; Farrell & Seifert, 2007; Klein, 2017; Reed et al., 2007). In order to realize the benefits of successful strategic partnerships, we must first improve our understanding of how strategic partnerships develop. The process of forming a strategic partnership sets the objectives and expectations of the relationship, which in turn impact the likelihood of success and sustainability of the relationship.

While the process of partnership formation is iterative and not necessarily linear (Buys & Bursnall, 2007), prior research on strategic partnerships has worked to delineate stages through which these relationships develop. As strategic partnerships form, they first move through initiation and clarification stages (Sargent & Waters, 2004). In the initiation stage, motivations for collaborating may be instrumental (e.g., complementary skill sets, access to data) and/or intrinsic (e.g., enjoyment of working with each other) (Sargent & Waters, 2004). Potential partners are often identified through existing social networks and past working relationships (Buys & Bursnall, 2007; Hudson, 2016). During the clarification stage, decisions are made about the size, scope, and duration of the partnership (Sargent & Waters, 2004) and roles for individuals and groups become clearly defined (Buys & Bursnall, 2007). At this time, the members of a strategic partnership must develop clear goals to move the relationship forward (Sargent & Waters, 2004).

The analysis presented here emerges from our participatory action research with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) teams investigating the process of creating change within STEM higher education. The RED funding mechanism is designed to support awardees in creating systemic change in engineering and computer science higher education, with the goal of improving undergraduate educational outcomes and creating more inclusive environments for students and faculty. The currently funded projects range in scope from one department to an entire college. These projects are reconstructing their educational environments, from dismantling the traditional course structure to reformulating assessments of student achievements to diffusing social justice throughout the curriculum.

In 2015 NSF funded the first cohort of six RED teams; the second cohort of seven teams was funded in 2016, a third cohort of six teams was funded in 2017, and a fourth cohort of two teams was funded in 2019. Each of the RED grants is for five years. The RED funding mechanism requires the teams to be multidisciplinary; in addition to instructional faculty, each team must include at least one education researcher, social scientist, and administrator. While faculty form the core of each team, the teams also include academic services staff, administrative staff, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students. As shown in Table 1, the projects vary in disciplinary scope. Many of the teams are focused on a single-discipline department, yet some include multidisciplinary departments, multiple engineering departments, or even entire colleges of engineering.

With the initial funding of the RED grants came the opportunity to study the process of change within academia. As RED Participatory Action Research (REDPAR), we facilitate the consortium of RED teams and conduct research on the change process occurring within each of the RED schools. As demands for change in STEM education in the United States grow, projects like RED provide useful models for transformation. As the RED teams work to create and sustain systemic change, they have built a variety of strategic partnerships to help them achieve their goals. Here we examine how the RED teams have experienced the initiation and clarification stages of strategic partnership formation. These findings are part of the larger, on-going REDPAR project.

Table 1: NSF RED Grant Recipients, 2015–2019
Institution Unit Discipline


Arizona State University Polytechnic College General Engineering
Colorado State University Fort Collins Department Electrical and Computer Engineering
Oregon State University College Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering
Purdue University Department Mechanical Engineering
University of North Carolina at Charlotte College Computing and Informatics
University of San Diego College General Engineering
Boise State University Department Computer Science
Iowa State University Department Electrical and Computer Engineering
Rowan University Department Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department Bioengineering
University of New Mexico Department Chemical and Biological Engineering
University of Texas El Paso Department Computer Science
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Department Electrical and Computer Engineering
Clemson University Department Civil Engineering
East Carolina University Department Computer Science
Georgia Institute of Technology Department Biomedical Engineering
North Carolina A&T State University Department Chemical, Biological and Bioengineering
Seattle University Department Mechanical Engineering
Texas A&M University College Station Department Aerospace Engineering
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Department Electrical, Computer, Software, and Systems Engineering
University of Connecticut Department Civil and Environmental Engineering

2 Methods

The data consist of focus group discussions as well as observations of monthly calls of the consortium of RED teams. The semi-structured focus group discussions are conducted via phone and/or video conference call with each team at two time points: within the first six months of their grant (“baseline”) and approximately 28–30 months after their grant was awarded (“midpoint”). This analysis includes data from the first three cohorts of RED teams’ baseline focus group discussions along with the first and second cohorts’ midpoint focus groups. REDPAR team members Margherio, Doten-Snitker, and Litzler facilitated the 18 baseline focus groups and 11 midpoint focus groups; each focus group consisted of members from one RED team. The focus groups ranged in size from two to 11 participants, with an average of five participants. Baseline focus groups were designed to gather information on the initial stages of the change projects, including team formation, the proposal creation process, and relevant prior experiences. The midpoint focus groups were designed to gather information on implementation, adaptation, context, and the skills involved in academic change-making. Focus groups are especially useful for this research as they allow team members to respond to and build on each other’s comments (Lofland & Lofland, 2006), revealing individual and collective reasoning and motivations as the teams converse (Ansay et al., 2004; Morgan, 1996).

Each month, REDPAR team members Williams, Andrijcic, and Mohan facilitate a video conference call for the consortium of RED teams. Each call lasts for one hour and covers topics such as change project management, using social media as a resource for change, and communicating your impact. REDPAR team members Margherio, Doten-Snitker, and Litzler observe and transcribe each monthly call. This analysis includes 21 call transcriptions, representing all of the monthly calls in the first two years of the RED grant program.

We entered all of the data into the NVivo qualitative data management software program. Utilizing an abductive approach (Timmermans & Tavory, 2012), we made iterative moves between data coding and theory building, paying particular attention to any unexpected findings. Margherio and Doten-Snitker led the coding process and engaged in making iterative moves with existing research models and discussing the research findings as they evolved. We developed the initial coding scheme after reviewing six first-year focus group transcripts and eight call transcripts, as well as studies of academic change by Kezar (2011, 2014) and Kezar and Eckel (2002). During the coding process, we updated and revised the coding scheme with emergent codes; each transcript was read three times and coded on the second and third passes. Throughout the analysis, we wrote analytic memos to explicate the coding categories, identify patterns and themes, and investigate the implicit meanings and underlying assumptions within the data (Charmaz, 2001).

3 Results

In the initial stages of strategic partnership formation, we find that the teams have been focused on identifying potential partners, motivating partnerships, and building shared vision. The teams described having developed a broad range of partnerships in order to further their work. Seven teams were working with professional associations or networks, such as using professional organizations as a venue to push dialogue about change to other institutions. Six teams were deepening connections with industry, while seven teams mentioned relationships with their campus centers for teaching and learning. Other partners included: campus administration and support offices, campus initiatives, a non-profit organization, a state legislature, and local high schools. Some of these relationships were extensions of prior strategic partnerships, some were initiated during the proposal writing process, and some began after the grant was funded.

3.1 Identifying Potential Partners

RED teams have voiced a variety of instrumental motivations for building strategic partnerships as a part of their projects, including: finding allies for their projects, attracting resources, supplementing skill sets, and navigating bureaucracy. In order to connect to potential partners, RED team members have leveraged their individual social capital, building relationships through their pre-existing connections and relying on prior working relationships. For example, to partner with a faculty development program for improving campus diversity and inclusion, one team relied on “really good personal ties and investments from that group.” Two teams’ PIs were already involved in consortiums, one national and one state-level, whose missions complemented the teams’ goals; their connections in these consortiums helped them find institutions and individuals who wanted to amplify and support the teams’ work.

A few new partners were identified by looking at the local environment beyond teams’ personal connections, in order to meet specific goals for their projects. For example, one team hosted a “speed networking event” on campus to build connections and identify potential partners. Another team worked to forge a new partnership with their campus teaching center. In their baseline focus group, one of their team’s members said, “My impression is that they are very eager to help, but most of their experiences are not in Engineering. I think they consider that as a challenge and an opportunity for them to learn from us.” In a later conversation, this same team reflected back on the beginnings of this partnership and stated, “When we approached them and told them what we were planning, they got extremely excited.” Thinking beyond conventional partners helped teams reach out to groups who were eager to collaborate but may have been overlooked or ignored in the past.

RED teams have continued to build strategic partnerships as their projects have progressed. After seeing how many of their students struggled with writing, one team reached out to an English professor. A team member explained:



After seeing [our students struggle], we decided that, of course, the conventional answer would be to point fingers at the English Department and say, “Wow, you take so many English classes, what about it?” or “What happened?” We met and talked to the professor in charge of the rhetoric program … He looked at what we do and he essentially told us we weren’t quite doing things the right way, and there were better ways to teach writing than what we were doing … That is what has been evolving over the last year [as we learn] how to do that properly, and ultimately that has resulted in institutionalizing the change. We have revised our curriculum.

When RED teams encountered challenges, such as students struggling with writing, rather than placing blame they saw an opportunity for seeking a strategic partnership to meet their change project’s needs.

3.2 Motivating Partnerships

Teams had opportunities, resources, and collaborative products they could offer to motivate partnership (Doten-Snitker et al., 2020). The value to partners might be through specific features of the change project, the organizational capital of the department or institution, or even factors entirely external to the project. Several teams experienced particular success through connecting to institutional initiatives. One of these teams was partnering with a campus-wide effort on communication skills; this team and the new partner attended each other’s workshops. “We are trying to embed what we are doing into the bigger picture, so that the system will align with our hopes and aspirations,” expressed a team member.

When crossing disciplinary and organizational boundaries, partners’ motivations were sometimes outside of what teams imagined the rewards to be. For example, one RED team noted: “We had someone from Art who is a sculptor; when she saw the size of our machine shop, [she said,] ‘Maybe I have a real excuse to talk to you people.’” Showing potential partners how the partnership aligned with their interests or commitments facilitated partnership formation.

RED teams have worked to establish supportive frameworks for their strategic partnerships by aligning goals and activities, building on their partner’s strengths, and creating mutually beneficial relationships. One team discovered that highly-involved staff members were champions of their projects because they “see these types of projects as more aligned with their job.” RED teams realized the need to embed respect into the structure of the partnership. For example, in describing a cross-disciplinary collaboration, one team member explained, “you don’t want to relegate the other discipline to some sort of service role, it needed to be of substance (i.e., not just grading papers).”

3.3 Building Shared Vision

In many of the partnerships, RED teams invited partners into a visioning process that reflects the ideas of the partners, not just that of the original team. Teams empowered their partners through formational communication, inviting stakeholders to contribute to the change process through offering alternative or additional ideas for goals or how to implement the change (Doten-Snitker et al., 2020). For example, one team described this process as follows:

We invited our advisory board to participate in [a] brainstorming process with us—what are their perceptions for needs for change. And that was immensely beneficial. We repeated that in year two refining our ideas based on their comments.

Three other teams reported similar processes with their industrial advisory boards. A member of one of these teams remarked that a great benefit of their relationship with their board was “the advisory board seeing how they could contribute to the project now and over time.” The other team developed a new project component through the leadership of the board, meeting needs in professional training that the board identified and using the board’s capacities to develop and implement the new component.

A few of the teams worked to build shared vision from the beginning. For example, one team incorporated a potential strategic partner into the proposal writing process, while another team gathered commitments from potential partners in industry prior to submitting their grant application. Two teams brought up potential partnerships where they had mutual interest but had not yet decided with their partners what they should focus on. One team member explained, “I just got an email today, and they are excited about moving forward on this … We are brainstorming.” In these nascent relationships, teams were engaging with potential partners in developing shared vision from the very first conversations about working together.

Yet RED teams also learned that sharing vision with strategic partners is an ongoing process, and continued effort must be put toward communication among strategic partners. One PI advised, “Don’t think that everyone is going to interpret the milestones the same way … After the kickoff, we were still trying to clarify what the whole thing even was. It takes time to work through those things.” Another team described a recent experience where their RED team and their strategic partner arrived at a meeting with different assumptions about the goals of the meeting. Communication, and cross-disciplinary communication in particular, was seen as a critical skill in building strategic partnerships.

4 Discussion

Our findings highlight the need to engage in an expansive search to identify potential partners and to leverage social capital to form these relationships. While initial efforts to build strategic partnerships may start with prior working relationships, it is important to look beyond one’s immediate social network for potential partners, in order to meet the needs of your change project. By leveraging social capital (Eddy, 2010), it is possible to access a greater range of potential partners.

This research has indicated that RED teams are considering their projects and products from the perspective of the partner (Barnett et al., 2010) to motivate partnerships, including the partners’ interests and needs as well as what they stand to gain from the collaboration. This is especially important in appealing to groups or individuals outside of one’s social networks, who may have less intrinsic motivation to partner. While at times RED teams stumbled upon their potential partners’ motivations, humble inquiry (Schein, 2013) offers an intentional method of learning about others’ motivations, values, and goals. In addition, sharing one’s own needs and interests early will help build trust in the relationship (Barnett et al., 2010).

We find that communication is important at every step within the initial stages of forming strategic partnerships, from identifying partners to motivating partnerships to building shared vision. These findings support prior research on the value of communication showing that partners must discuss and resolve disparate interests when initiating a partnership to minimize misunderstandings (Buys & Bursnall, 2007). Further, communication is a key component of building trust and mutual respect; these interpersonal processes are vital to being able to give constructive feedback within a strategic partnership (Sargent & Waters, 2004). Motivations for the partnership are likely to change over time (Amey, 2010), and partners need to continue to engage in conversation about their commitment as the relationship and joint project evolves.

This analysis has focused on the initiation and clarification stages of strategic partnership formation, identifying successful practices for building collaborative relationships in these early stages. These lessons extend to implementing and sustaining strategic partnerships as well. While the dynamics of the collaboration will shift over time (Barnett et al., 2010), partners must continue to communicate about workload balances, rewards and recognition for their work, and overall project goals. Open and regular communication is necessary to ensure equitable input, mutual benefits, and a continued shared vision (Buys & Bursnall, 2007; Hudson, 2016). Key to this work is the recognition that all partners need to engage in developing a shared vision for the project. Through shared vision building and democratic decision-making, these strategic partnerships may provide a framework to sustain changes for the long-term.

5 About the Authors

Cara Margherio is the Assistant Director of the Center for Evaluation & Research for STEM Equity at the University of Washington.

Kerice Doten-Snitker was a Graduate Research Assistant in the Center for Evaluation and Research for STEM Equity (CERSE) at the University of Washington and will be a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Social Sciences and a Junior Researcher in Sociology in the Carlos III-Juan March Institute at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

Julia M. Williams is Professor of English in the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Elizabeth Litzler is Director of the Center for Evaluation & Research for STEM Equity at the University of Washington and Affiliate Assistant Professor in Sociology at the University of Washington.

Eva Andrijcic is an Associate Professor of Engineering Management at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Sriram Mohan is a Professor of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

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Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education by Cara Margherio, Kerice Doten-Snitker, Julia Williams, Elizabeth Litzler, Eva Andrijcic, and Sriram Mohan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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