Program Profiles

How do successful afterschool STEM programs do it?

These innovative afterschool programs offer impactful STEM programming to diverse populations. Read on to hear their advice for success and to learn about their program structure, evaluation results and partnership models.

Science Action Club

National, United States

Launched in 2011 by the California Academy of Sciences, Science Action Club (SAC) is a global out-of-school time (OST) program for middle school youth that aims to transform environmental learning at scale. Through games, projects, and hands-on activities, youth in SAC investigate nature, document their discoveries, and contribute to citizen science research. OST staff receive in-depth training on Science Action Club kits, activity guidebooks, and STEM teaching techniques for the informal learning environment.

Population Served

Over 63,000 youth and educators in more than 400 communities have participated in Science Action Club since 2011. Each year, hundreds of clubs join the growing SAC network, while SAC-certified trainers provide coaching and support for regional cohorts. Science Action Club is successful in both rural and urban environments. Over 75% of participants are students of color and more than half are girls.

Program Features

Science Action Club features environmental science activity kits and professional development training for OST program providers, as well as self-guided digital learning labs for youth.

Designed for grades 5-8, SAC Kits use citizen science to spark wonder and curiosity about the natural world. Cloud Quest connects to GLOBE Observer, a project by NASA in which youth observe the sky to help scientists understand the connection between clouds and climate change; Bird Scouts explores feathers, flight, and the features that make birds unique and connects to eBird from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; and Bug Safari trains youth to use iNaturalist to explore small creatures with big environmental impacts.

SAC online trainings for program staff are self-paced, easy-to-follow, and fun. Through games, videos, and interactive practice, educators learn the tools and strategies to lead SAC activities with confidence and skill. Each course includes helpful background information, teaching tips, step-by-step guidance for all SAC activities, and recommendations for how to extend and deepen the learning experience. For even more support, programs may request a customized facilitator-led training or coaching session.

SAC Labs make it easy and fun for youth in grades 3-5 to explore the natural world and make exciting discoveries anytime, anywhere.  These downloadable resources support youth to document their original discoveries and reflections. SAC Labs are available in two topics:

  • Design Lab: Through outdoor expeditions, youth investigate the local environment and learn how to look closely, notice patterns, identify problems, and design solutions. Using simple tools and strategies, youth investigate flight, measure wind, probe pollination, and more.
  • Nature Lab: Using simple tools and strategies, youth investigate flight, measure wind, probe pollination, and more! Through neighborhood expeditions, youth investigate the local environment and learn how to look closely, notice patterns, identify problems, and design solutions.

Through SAC experiences, youth participate in STEM learning that is authentic, relevant, and meaningful to their own lives. All SAC resources are easily customized for both in-person and virtual learning.

Program Structure

Designed for middle school, SAC Kits include 12 hands-on activities and citizen science investigations designed for 60- to 90-minute club sessions led by OST educators, as well as bonus media and resources for extended learning. Each kit includes an activity guide, science tools and supplies for 20 youth, and an interactive, self-paced, online training for program staff.

Recommended for youth in grades 3-5, SAC Labs are great for self-guided learning at home, in school, or during out-of-school time. Each downloadable workbook includes instructions for six or seven activities plus journaling space for one young naturalist to sketch ideas and record reflections.

Professional Development

Whether you are a seasoned science educator or new to the field, SAC trainings make it easy and fun to lead hands-on STEM activities with youth. Educators are required to complete the professional development course and have the option to attend an in-person or virtual training workshop, led by a certified SAC trainer. SAC has partnered with statewide and national afterschool organizations and leveraged the train-the-trainer model to reach widespread geographic audiences. Both the online and in-person trainings provide detailed guidance and support for all 12 SAC activities, as well as background information on scientific content, how to do citizen science, and best practices for teaching STEM in an informal learning environment. The training comes with resources and guidance on how to run SAC successfully during shelter-in-place and a variety of safety restrictions during COVID-19. The training materials are designed by SAC staff at the California Academy of Sciences with input from the world-renowned Academy scientific researchers and include videos and articles from colleagues in the field.


SAC works with the evaluation firm Public Profit to assess annual programmatic impact on participating youth and educators. Outcome data is collected through pre- and post-session surveys, site visits, interviews, and focus groups. Through these methods SAC gathers data on youth and educators’ interest in STEM, engagement in STEM, and the degree to which they value STEM learning. In the 2019-2020 school year, 83% of youth reported feeling more confident in their science skills since joining SAC and 95% of SAC educators felt their training increased their interest in teaching science.

Learn more about our program impacts in our SAC Impact Report.


SAC is a fee-for-service program with generous financial support from the Pisces Foundation and the Science Sandbox, a program of the Simons Foundation. Program fees are determined by an organization’s ability to pay so that cost is not a barrier to participation.

Advice for Success

Elizabeth Babcock, Chief Public Engagement Officer & Roberts-Wilson Dean of Education Pronouns: she/her/hers
Q1 | What are the biggest challenges in the afterschool space right now?

I’d say the biggest challenge is the uncertainty and the difficulty that afterschool program leaders are facing as they try to answer existential questions like: Do we open? Do we stay open? What are the parameters of my city and county? How do I make my business model work?

We know how important out-of-school time services are for families and kids. Programs are feeling torn between providing critical services to youth while having so many uncertainties. I think afterschool programs are thinking about funders, downsizing staff, turnover, rebuilding programs, and more. It’s complex.

Q2 | For afterschool programs new to or currently offering nature-based learning, what's your advice?

It’s a great time for afterschool programs who already are offering nature-based experiences. We know it’s safer to be learning outside. For those who have nature-based learning at their core, I’d imagine there is a lot of interest and demand to keep kids connected to the outdoors. There is also an opportunity for afterschool providers to integrate nature-based learning into their programs right now which is also exciting. Why do I find that so exciting? Part of the California Academy of Sciences mission is to connect kids to nature. One way to do that is to get them outside. It’s not the only way but it’s an important way! It’s a boost for nature connections and science learning.

I think Science Action Club (SAC) has a huge opportunity right now. SAC takes place mostly outside and is all about getting kids in nature and making observations. We already have deep expertise in supporting afterschool program leaders and SAC’s program and training can be a model for people to move sessions and programs outside. Programs don’t have to reinvent everything, SAC has everything ready for you!

Q3 | If you could look in crystal ball, what do you see for the future of afterschool?

I do think we’re going to see an impact from the pandemic that will stick with us for the next few years. We have some kids who have been inside for several months. It’s just been a terrible year and for many families it been so painful.

Afterschool providers’ silver lining, and sometimes their extra burden, is that they are often the broker between the school and the kids. The best situation is when there is a nice tether between afterschool and in-school programs. Because there will be so many kids who are behind an academic year, afterschool can play a role in helping get the kids caught back up. There are many opportunities for learning and support services that can get addressed.

For more information, please contact Rachael Van Schoik, Science Action Club Manager at