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.
Launched in 2011 by the California Academy of Sciences, Science Action Club (SAC) is a nationwide 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 global 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. Within the Bay Area region, the SAC program serves as a foundation for the Bay Area STEM Ecosystem, a cross-sector initiative designed to address equity and access issues in South San Francisco.
The growing SAC network includes 800 clubs in 19 states and served more than 16,000 students in the 2016-2017 school year. The majority of participants in Science Action Club are students of color in middle school (grades 5-8).
SAC features three environmental science units focused on bugs, birds, and clouds. In each unit, youth contribute to citizen science. SAC sessions are designed to spark wonder and curiosity about the natural world and provide opportunities to participate in STEM learning that is interesting and meaningful to the lives of young people. SAC’s citizen science projects have global reach, established longevity, and take students outdoors to explore their local environment. For example, 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 connects to eBird from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; and Bug Safari leverages Academy research on arthropods, using iNaturalist.
Each SAC curriculum unit includes 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.
OST educators are trained and supported by professional development specialists in the SAC trainer network. Educators are required to complete an interactive, asynchronous, online professional development course and attend an in-person training workshop, where they receive a SAC curriculum guide and fully-stocked materials kit. SAC has partnered with statewide and national afterschool organizations and leveraged the train-the-trainer model to reach widespread geographic audiences. 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 materials are designed by SAC staff at the California Academy of Sciences and include videos and articles from colleagues in the field.
SAC works with the evaluation firm Public Profit to assess programmatic impact on participating youth, activity leaders, and trainers. Outcome data is collected through pre- and post-session surveys, site visits, interviews, and focus groups. In addition to developing original assessment strategies, SAC employs validated evaluation tools. Through these methods SAC gathers data on youth and staff interest in STEM, engagement in STEM, and the degree to which they value STEM learning.
Q1 | What’s been most crucial for The Science Action Club's success?
The following have been most crucial in our success:
Identifying key partners at the local, statewide and national levels.
Leveraging the train-the-trainer model to reach widespread geographic audiences.
Identifying and addressing what afterschool programs want and need.
Designing experiences that put youth in the center of the experience. Find out what they want!
Q2 | What were some of the challenges the program faced in its early stages?
In the early stages, the SAC team spent time building relationships and learning about the needs of our afterschool partners. We found that in order for our program to be successful it had to be designed with flexibility to accommodate high turnover and limited resources of afterschool partners. We also needed to focus on professional development for delivering STEM programming, specifically supporting afterschool staff in building the skills and confidence to delivering informal STEM experiences.
As the program continues to scale, we have relied on a nimble and creative team to help us grow quickly to meet increasing demand for the program, which includes modifying the SAC training to include an online component. Gathering accurate and abundant evaluation data continues to be a challenge.
Q3 | For afterschool programs new to offering STEM, what’s your advice?
When designing a STEM program, remember to focus on what your institution does best, and leverage partnerships to support the rest. Science-rich institutions such as museums and science centers often offer STEM content and programming that can meet the needs of afterschool. Do some research to find out what exists in your area.
Q4 | Let’s talk partnerships! How do you develop and maintain them?
Q5 | How does Science Action Club support students traditionally underrepresented in STEM?
The SAC program is designed to be accessible for all youth, regardless of background or ethnicity. The curriculum and program design is flexible to meet the needs of afterschool providers who are trained on ways to adapt the learning experience for the needs of their youth. Recognizing the need for “girl-friendly” STEM experiences, SAC also partners with the National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) to ensure the program experiences are accessible for all genders. The SAC program is currently running in 12 states through the NGCP network.
For more information, please contact Laura Herszenhorn, Science Action Club Senior Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Afterschool Alliance is working to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs. Afterschool programs are critical to children and families today, yet the need for programs is far from being met. Learn more