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.

California Tinkering Afterschool Network

Bay Area, CA

The California Tinkering Afterschool Network (CTAN), which operated from 2012 to 2015, was a partnership that came together to design and implement STEM-rich afterschool tinkering/making programs that serve youth from low-income, historically marginalized communities. The network brought together the expertise of afterschool directors, facilitators, and researchers from two out-of-school time organizations—the Community Science Workshop Network and Techbridge—along with two science museums including Discovery Cube and the Exploratorium.

CTAN is one of several initiatives of the Research + Practice Collaboratory that partners educators with researchers to change how educational challenges are defined and approached in STEM teaching and learning. While the project ended in 2015, our experiences and findings are hopefully useful to the afterschool field and all who are interested in maker education.

Population Served

CTAN reached over 2,000 K-12 students across four afterschool sites offered by Techbridge (Oakland, CA), Community Science Workshop Network (Fresno and Watsonville, CA) and Discovery Cube (partnering with the Fontana After School program in Fontana, CA). These sites reach students from rural and urban communities who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Across sites, the majority of participants were children of color, with up to 100 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch, and up to 70 percent of students being English Language Learners depending on the site.

Program Features

CTAN explicitly took an equity-oriented approach, seeking to provide learning experiences that support all youth’s successful participation in activities and contribution to learning communities. This is done by building on students’ personal interests and prior experiences, considering them resources for new learning, rather than deficits.

Further, we know that making activities hold the promise of providing valuable learning opportunities, particularly when incorporating STEM tools and practices. We were concerned about whether or not this promise is fulfilled for children underrepresented in STEM. How can STEM-rich making provide expansive and equitable learning experiences for all youth? And what professional supports are necessary for educators to support meaningful making experiences for youth? To investigate these questions, we formed a research-practice partnership and jointly analyzed observation data together over three years.

Program Structure

Techbridge offers inquiry-based science and engineering activities for girls through programs located on school campuses. School-day teachers team up with Techbridge staff to lead STEM-based activities. Within the CTAN partnership, high school girls created projects of their own design to showcase at San Mateo’s Maker Faire, which often incorporated Arduino microcomputers and other computer science aspects.

CSW offers STEM-based, open-ended making activities at drop-in afterschool centers. Youth choose what they want to make and are welcome to bring their own projects to work on using CSW tools and materials. These sites also operated as community drop-in centers, in which family members of all ages were welcome. In both Fresno and Watsonville, many of the paid staff had themselves been community drop-in participants as youth.

Discovery Cube with Fontana After School Program focused on teaching STEM-rich making activities with 3rd-5th grade children. Making activities included explorations with circuitry, such as creating circuits and building scribbling machines.

Professional Development

Techbridge offers a week-long professional development (PD) for their educators every summer, as well as monthly professional developments throughout the school year. PD reflects the best practices for inquiry-based learning, addresses equity issues in STEM learning for girls of diverse ethnic, racial, socioeconomic and ability backgrounds. Additionally, educators try out the making activities they will be teaching in order to understand first-hand the type of questions and learning that may emerge for youth.

CSW also offers hands-on PD learning experiences for their educators, as well as trainings that explore program mission, goals, equity issues that arise across different drop-in sites, and supporting families and youth mentors.

Discovery Cube hosted a regional professional development workshop, which Fontana After School Program coordinators and educators attended. The PD reflected the best practices in maker education, and attendees had the opportunity to implement the activities they learned.


The goal of our partnership was not only to explore how STEM-rich making can provide expansive and equitable learning experiences for all youth, but also to challenge the gaps that often exist between researchers and educators. Our partnership wanted to challenge traditional models of educational research and practice--where researchers come in with their own questions, implement theory-driven solutions, collect data, and make recommendations with little to no input from educators. We formed our “research-practice partnership” with the goal of improving communication across researchers and educators while developing research that was jointly analyzed and therefore more useful to educators. Typically, these types of partnerships sit at the intersection of research (knowledge-building) and evaluation (program improvement). Partners review, discuss, and analyze evidence, collected in the form of video or field notes, in order to gain a deep yet practical understanding of how program implementation affects youth and adults. In our research-practice partnership, the shared interest was a desire to articulate what high-quality STEM-rich making looks like.


Our research found that making can support several aspects of student learning, regardless of students’ gender, ability, socioeconomic status, or community of origin. However, to achieve these valued outcomes, making activities must be implemented in ways that are both STEM-rich and equitable. Additionally, making programs provide a powerful context for socio-emotional and academic learning in the following ways:  

  • Supporting students’ persistence by offering opportunities for intellectual and creative risk-taking.
  • Engaging students in STEM practices, such as designing, building, testing, and refining.
  • Supporting the development of 21st century skills such as collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking.
  • Supporting connections across informal and formal education settings toward deeper learning both in and out of school.

Our research findings also define the characteristics of productive making programs and the necessary professional supports for the educators who lead them. Read our report, “STEM-Rich Making in Afterschool” to learn about these findings in depth.


CTAN’s major funding sources were the National Science Foundation and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. CTAN equally valued both educational practice and educational research, and therefore made it a goal to ensure all partners received equal amounts of funding for both programming and research.

Our Resources

Throughout the project, CTAN team members reflected on what it takes to build positive and equitable working relationships between educators and researchers. We developed two resources to document this, however they’re useful for thinking about any partnership!

  1. Building Equitable Partnerships spells out what equitable partnerships look like and guides questions for establishing, engaging, and encouraging equity between partners.
  2. Value Mapping is an activity partners complete together that surfaces power dynamics and diverse perspectives.

For maker activity guides, PD resources, or to learn more about equity in afterschool visit our Resources Webpage.

Advice for Success

Jean Ryoo, Senior Researcher & Program Director of CTAN

Q1 | What’s been most crucial for CTAN’s success?

We define “success” as ensuring that youth have expansive learning experiences that allow them to be imaginative and creative while deepening their STEM skills and practices, as well as equitable learning experiences that counter the inequities youth face by leveraging their prior interests and cultural resources toward successful and full participation in and contributions to activities. We believe there are three key features of afterschool STEM-rich making that are necessary for success:

  1. Offering engaging making activities that allow multiple entry-points into creating and building.
  2. Providing thoughtful facilitation of activities that leverage youth’s prior interests and knowledge while making space for iterative development of ideas.
  3. Supporting educators with professional development opportunities that address how to build a culture of inquiry in programs and provide time to reflect on the inequities youth experiences across learning spaces and how to ensure those inequities are not reproduced in afterschool programs.
Q2 | What were some of the challenges the program faced in its early stages?

In our programs, we value a focus on process and iterative design and re-design while completing making projects. In this way, we hope to support youth in persisting through challenging moments as they arise in their projects and to recognize the value of the process over the final product. However, reframing challenging moments, or what youth have often experienced as “failure” during school time, can be difficult. In the current era of high-stakes standardized testing, creating something that “doesn’t work” or coming up with the “wrong answer” can have serious consequences for youth’s educational trajectories. Yet in STEM-rich making spaces, we seek to develop a culture that allows youth to learn from projects that “don’t work” while focusing on new skills and approaches to “making things work.” We also try to provide multiple entry points into projects so that youth have the space to create unique products that don’t all look the same. Celebrating process over product and multiple “right” answers in afterschool time can be challenging when youth have been taught to believe that there is only one right answer or a single “correct” product.

Q3 | For afterschool programs new to offering STEM, what’s your advice?

Allow STEM to come to life by showing how STEM concepts and skills relate to the interests and knowledge that youth bring to the table. Through hands-on, inquiry-based, open-ended making activities, STEM learning can be not only fun, but also deeply meaningful as youth explore the investigating, sense-making, and critiquing practices of real scientists and engineers.

Q4 | Let’s talk partnerships! How do you develop and maintain them?

Building open lines of communication is key to maintaining healthy partnerships. This requires that attention is paid to:

  • Developing shared project outcomes.
  • Seeking to understand the different vocabulary and ways of talking about topics related to learning and teaching across various knowledge bases.
  • Discussing how the partnership will deal with real institutional and professional limits (related to the pressures, demands, and timeframes impacting different partners’ professional lives and contexts), deciding how resources will be allocated (both tangible and intellectual).
  • Figuring out how to communicate honestly and repair relationships as needed.
  • Including time for routine reflection on both the project work and the partnership progress.
Q5 | How did CTAN support students traditionally underrepresented in STEM?

Across CTAN afterschool sites, we paid attention to the following program features:

  1. Accessibility – Programs are made accessible to youth, as well as to parents and siblings. This means we want venues to be accessible by public transportation or foot, located in a safe space, and have flexible attendance policies like open door and drop-in.
  2. Culturally Relevance – STEM-rich making activities are made relevant to the interests and local concerns of youth.
  3. Scaffolding Learning Experiences – We start with activities that are engaging and fun and build confidence quickly before jumping into longer-term and more complex projects.
  4. Youth-Driven – Activities are youth-driven by allowing youth to choose the direction and process of their projects. We believe that programs should get input from youth to find out what they want and need.
  5. Asset-based Pedagogy – Educators seek to challenge deficit-based views of children by emphasizing their assets and strengths coming from prior knowledge, cultural backgrounds, or languages spoken at home.
  6. Connecting to the Future – Mentors from the local community (from universities, businesses, program alumnae, or art studios) are invited into spaces to serve as role models and build connections between afterschool STEM learning and future life or career trajectories.
  7. Engaging Families – Families should be welcomed into afterschool spaces and connections should be made between home and STEM-rich afterschool learning through making.

For more information, please contact Jean Ryoo, CTAN Project Director at