Afterschool: The Seed for STEM to Grow

Blowing things up to learn what it means to be an engineer. Cooking with pros to learn chemistry and math. Creating a mock crime scene and using new technologies as you investigate and find the culprit.

The afterschool arena is uniquely suited for fun and engaging projects like these, which provide engaging, educational, hands-on lessons in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to a new report released by the Afterschool Alliance at a Capitol Hill briefing for policy makers in September.

Afterschool programs also reach female and minority students, who often are left behind in STEM learning, with these activities. "Girls meet real-life scientists and engineers, and they realize that science is not just for geniuses. They build relationships with these adults and can see themselves in these careers," said Connie Chow, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Science Club for Girls at the congressional briefing. "The nimbleness of afterschool to quickly adopt STEM curricula makes it an ideal environment, and helps bridge the ability and confidence gap we often see in students."

In addition to Chow, the briefing featured: Fernando Laguarda, Vice President for External Affairs and Policy Counselor, Time Warner Cable; Bronwyn Bevan, Ph.D., Director, Center for Informal Learning and Schools, Exploratorium; and Anita Krishnamurthi, Ph.D., Afterschool Alliance Director of STEM Policy, who led the report. The briefing was sponsored by the House and Senate Afterschool Caucuses.

Connecting STEM Afterschool to Tomorrow's Workforce
STEM Learning in Afterschool: An Analysis of Impact and Outcomes finds that reforms in formal K-12 education are necessary to fully address widely recognized shortcomings in STEM subjects - a gap that jeopardizes United States competitiveness with more STEM-savvy countries. But, the report notes, children in the U.S. spend less than 20 percent of their waking hours in school, leaving untapped opportunities for supplemental STEM learning.

At the briefing, Bevan summarized the research being conducted in this area, noting that children's experiences outside the school day can have a tremendous influence on whether a child will stay in STEM or leave. Furthermore, researchers are showing that envisioning oneself in a STEM career early is a better predictor than grades of whether a student will pursue a STEM-related career, she said.

Laguarda explained that businesses such as Time Warner Cable care about STEM education because of the importance of STEM skills to their workforce. "We need a population that is trained, STEM-competent and STEM-literate. This is about partnerships and re-thinking how we can approach education. No one can do this alone. The private sector has a tremendous opportunity to step up."

At Time Warner Cable, employees are encouraged to think of themselves as "STEM Connectors" and to take time to mentor youth. "We have learned through our afterschool STEM work that there is a real spark and engagement when you teach kids in a compelling way that is outside of the classroom," Laguarda said. Time Warner Cable is the sponsor of Connect A Million Minds, an initiative that encourages mentoring in STEM fields.

"It's crystal-clear that a more STEM-literate citizenry and workforce are crucial to the future competitiveness of the United States," Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant said. "And it's equally clear that a STEM-literate workforce will be even stronger when it is more diverse. What's been less clear until now is how to get to where we need to be with STEM learning. This report lays out solid examples that demonstrate the invaluable role afterschool programs can play in moving the country forward. Afterschool programs give students the chance to build robots, explore the stars, learn how plants process sunlight and what makes airplanes and rockets fly. They have time to try, fail and try again. Much of that isn't possible during the regular school day."

Utilizing evaluations from afterschool STEM programs throughout the United States, the report identifies trends and outcomes that demonstrate the significant and specific contributions afterschool programs are making to STEM education.

Evaluating Afterschool's Contribution to STEM
The Afterschool Alliance's review of evaluations found that high-quality STEM afterschool programs yielded STEM-specific benefits in three broad categories: improved attitudes toward STEM fields and careers; increased STEM knowledge and skills; and increased likelihood of graduation and pursuing a STEM career.

In the first category - improved attitudes toward STEM fields and careers - researchers have shown that an early interest in STEM subjects is a better indicator than grades of whether a student will pursue a STEM-related career. An early interest is also necessary to motivate students to develop the knowledge and skills required to pursue more rigorous math and science courses in high school.

For example, FIRST surveyed participants from 1999 to 2003 in New York and Detroit, finding that 80 percent of respondents reported increased understanding of the role science and technology play in everyday life. Eighty-six percent reported an increased interest in science and technology; 69 percent had an increased interest in STEM careers; 89 percent reported increased self-confidence; and 70 percent had an increased motivation to do well in school.

In the second category - increased STEM knowledge and skills - the report focuses on evaluations of nine programs that use the afterschool setting to cultivate skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. These are crucial to the knowledge-based jobs of the present and future. Project IT Girl's evaluations, for example, showed that 82 percent of participants were more confident in gaining high-tech skills; and 79 percent gained a better understanding of STEM-related careers.

In the third category - increased likelihood of graduation and pursuing a STEM career - evaluations of STEM programs show that participants are more likely to pursue higher education and study STEM fields. Tracking students long-term, the report notes, is a resource-intensive approach that only a few programs can afford. The ACE Mentor Program for example, which had 61 percent minority participation in 2008-2009, conducted a survey of 933 alumni in 2009. ACE students who were seniors in high school in 2009 graduated at a rate of 97 percent compared to the 73 percent national graduation rate as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics; and 66 percent of alumni from the ACE program are studying architecture, engineering, construction and the skilled trades, or are already working in one of these fields.

The report concludes that, although more outcome studies and impact data from STEM afterschool programs will help clarify these promising trends, existing data already show that the afterschool setting is playing a key role in supporting STEM learning. Future STEM education policy, the report says, should include afterschool as a key component of STEM education reform efforts.

To learn more about STEM in afterschool, visit the Afterschool Alliance's special STEM website.

This story originally appeared in the Afterschool Advocate (Vol. 12, Issue 10).

Click here to read the rest of this issue.