The Afterschool-STEM Connection
Many of the solutions commonly proposed for the shortcomings of STEM education in the United States rely on schools doing the same things they’ve always been doing, only in greater quantity. But longer days and more and longer class periods won’t necessarily yield better achievement. As appealing as it might be to policymakers to just throw more class time at the problem, there’s not a lot of research to demonstrate it will work.
We need to redouble our efforts to educate our kids in STEM topics so that they can compete in the economy they’ll face once the graduate.
Part of the problem is that by focusing chiefly on what happens between the bells of the regular school day, we’re missing an important opportunity. Kids spend less than 20 percent of their waking hours in school, and yet we expect schools to solve the problem entirely by themselves. Afterschool and summer learning programs are partners that can complement and supplement school-day learning while providing an environment that feels different from school. These out-of-school-time programs provide imaginative and engaging STEM learning experiences that excite and engage children and youth. Untethered from tight time restrictions, cramped curricula, the pressures of being graded and judged, teach-to-the-test standardization, and even from the physical constraints of a classroom, these programs are putting the out-of-school hours to terrific use. In the process, they also connect students and schools with local businesses, mentors, and community organizations of all types. Afterschool and summer learning programs also excel at reaching and engaging kids from underserved communities who are typically under-represented in STEM fields.
The strengths of afterschool and summer learning programs lend themselves perfectly to STEM education. At the annual Afterschool for All Challenge in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, sponsored by the Afterschool Alliance, afterschool providers from around the nation continued the profession’s ongoing conversation about how to put afterschool’s unique attributes to best use in service of STEM education. Much of the discussion focused on identifying a set of appropriate outcomes and impacts of afterschool STEM learning and on forming partnerships with content-rich organizations such as science centers and libraries. The next day, participants visited with the offices of their members of Congress — more than 200 lawmakers’ offices in all, and afterschool’s growing role in STEM education was a key part of their message.
During the event, the Afterschool Alliance honored the founders of a Chicago-based STEM program as national Afterschool Champions. Paleontologist Paul Sereno and educator Gabrielle Lyon co-founded Project Exploration, which provides girls and students of color with opportunities to work with scientists who act as teachers, mentors, and role models. Drs. Sereno and Lyon founded Project Exploration 12 years ago and, in the years since, more than 1,000 Chicago Public School students have participated, developing their skills in science, technology, education and mathematics and gaining an appreciation for these fields. A 2010 retrospective study of Project Exploration’s alums found that 95 percent of the students who participated had graduated or were on track to graduate high school. Moreover, 60 percent of Project Exploration students who had enrolled in four-year colleges were pursuing STEM or STEM-related degrees.
A number of other afterschool and summer learning programs stand out as exemplars of STEM education. Among them:
- In the rural town of Camdenton, Missouri, an afterschool program called Project PASS (Partners Assisting in Student Success) has developed a robotics program that for two years running has advanced deep into the national FIRST Robotics competition. Meanwhile, in Indiana, the afterschool-based Michigan City Robotics Team 3936 was awarded “All-Star Rookie Team Award” at the FIRST Midwest Regional competition, and went on to the finals in St. Louis. Both programs drew on community partners, giving kids a chance to design and build robots with expert help.
- In Los Angeles, the Woodcraft Rangers’ Nvision Afterschool Program, with funding from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative and California’s After School Education and Safety program, is focusing students on alternative energy technology, including solar, wind and biofuels. Students use everyday items to build turbines, semiconductors, photovoltaic solar panels, and then use their creations to power their iPods and computers.
- In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a two-week summer science program for 9th and 10th graders called Cosmic Chemistry uses the real-world context of space science to draw students into chemistry. The students work with real-world data from NASA’s Genesis Mission, which includes a variety of online content, including live webinars with astronauts. The program debuted as a pilot effort in 2010, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Science.
These and other STEM-focused afterschool and summer learning programs across the country have developed methods of instruction that hit an important educational sweet spot: they’re pedagogically sound, frequently coordinated with what’s going on in students’ regular day curricula, heavily reliant on experiential learning and, maybe best of all, fun. And because the programs are able to work with community and national partners—NASA, in the case of the Tulsa program—they can put students in direct contact with practitioners and experts. These men and women can both help students understand the discipline, and model for them what it means to be a professional in the field.
The end result is students who are engaged and excited about STEM, and who know enough about the field to imagine themselves pursuing a career. That’s a critical accomplishment. Research has demonstrated that, for many students, the development of an interest in a science career by the 8th grade is key to their eventual pursuit of a degree and career in the field. So getting students hooked on STEM, particularly at an early age, can open a pathway to careers in the field.
A few decades ago, American students could look forward to inheriting from their parents’ generation unquestioned American leadership in science and a significant international edge in technology-development, one that would ensure American economic leadership, even hegemony. But that edge has dulled, and we need to redouble our efforts to educate our kids in STEM topics so that they can compete in the economy they’ll face once the graduate. Afterschool and summer learning programs can play a vital role in that effort. Indeed, they are proving that each weekday afternoon and all summer long.
Jodi Grant is Executive Director and Anita Krishnamurthi is Director of STEM Policy for the Afterschool Alliance.
This post was originally published on the STEMblog, a project of STEMconnector. It is reprinted here with permission.