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STEM Snacks


Guest Blog: Eight tips for facilitating maker activities with youth

By Erin Murphy

By Emily McLeod, Director of Curriculum at Techbridge, with contributions from Mia Shaw, Dolores Toledo, and Renny Talianchich, all Program Coordinators.

At Techbridge, making is a big part of the afterschool and summer STEM programming we deliver to more than 600 girls from underserved communities in the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about what high-quality making looks like and what staff can do to ensure that all participants are engaged and learning. Here’s our eight best practices for facilitating maker activities with youth.

1. Take time to build a community of makers

It is essential to take the time to create a culture and supportive space where it’s OK try new things, ask for help when you need it, and dream big. At the beginning of our Summer Academy, girls decided together what they wanted their community to look like. Every day, there were icebreakers and get-to-know-you activities, a practice we carry over into our afterschool programs.

2. Encourage youth choice

Youth are more invested in projects when they have ownership and seeing their own ideas come to life is a strong motivator. Youth choice also fosters equity, empowering youth to bring in their expertise, background, and personal interests. Therefore, most of our projects give youth meaningful choices about the direction they will take their work. In our high school programs, girls spend much of the year building projects of their own design to take to the local Maker Faire. With younger students, we often start with a prompt, concept, or design challenge (e.g. “make a robot that can interact with humans”) which provides focus, while allowing room for creativity.

3. Build peer and near-peer leadership

Taking on the role of an expert helps empower youth. To develop peer leadership, identify participants with more experience and actively encourage them to support their peers and share knowledge. During our Summer Academy, we invited girls from Techbridge’s high school programs to act as group leaders for middle school participants. This allowed older girls to develop leadership skills, provided younger girls role models and support, and gave program coordinators assistance in facilitating complex projects. You can try this model with college students as well!

4. Acknowledge challenges and focus on process, not product

Making can be challenging and projects may not turn out the way we intended. Acknowledge this! We make time to share our “Glorious Goofs” and talk about girls’ work as prototyping, rather than setting an expectation of creating polished products. Our facilitators encourage girls to think about the skills they are gaining, and the ideas they are developing, as the most important things they’ll take away from the project. For more information about addressing and reframing failure, see this blog post and this paper.

5. Share models and your own making experiences

We often share samples made by facilitators or girls in other programs. Youth love to see and play with physical examples, which can spark ideas for those who may be struggling to get started. If you can, make a variety of models; we’ve found that if there’s just one kind, youth may be tempted to copy it. Making models ahead of time also gives facilitators direct experience with the project and can help them see potential challenges youth might face and develop troubleshooting strategies.

6. Don’t forget aesthetics

Although Making encompasses a variety of interests and skills, the spotlight is often turned on projects that are tech-heavy, with focus on function over form. These projects don’t always appeal to everyone. For some youth, the way a project looks is just as important as what it does, and we make sure to build in time for visual design alongside the coding and engineering. Although it’s tempting to think of art-making or decoration as things to do if there’s extra time, for some youth, it can be the difference between engaging wholeheartedly with a project and tuning out.

7. You won’t know everything and that’s OK

Sometimes, youth will ask questions that facilitators don't know how to answer or ask for help with something they don't know how to fix. That's OK. We take a co-learning approach to our maker projects, and are upfront about the fact that we don’t have all of the answers. In these situations, model how a maker should address challenges—ask a peer; use a variety of resources (e.g., online guides, role models, fellow staff members, books); or be willing to try something that might not work. Taking risks and being vulnerable shows youth that it’s OK for them to do the same.

8. Celebrate successes along the way and share with others

You can help youth celebrate all kinds of success, not just completed projects. Use opportunities such as group shout-outs, gallery walks, and one-on-one feedback to appreciate youth for their progress along the way. At the end of a project, give youth opportunities to share their work through presentations to peers, at a science fair, or family event. It teaches them how to communicate with others and act as STEM experts within their own communities.



Making and equity: how a successful program integrated the two

By Erin Murphy

As part of our ongoing celebration of the National Week of Making, we are excited to announce the release of a new STEM program profile highlighting the wonderful work of the California Tinkering Afterschool Network (CTAN). The goal of our STEM program profiles is to share models of successful STEM programs and provide information about high-quality STEM learning experiences, professional development, funding, building partnerships and impressive outcomes for youth success.

CTAN is unique among our program profiles in that it is not an individual afterschool program, but was a partnership that brought together the expertise of afterschool directors, facilitators, and researchers. The network included two out-of-school time organizations—the Community Science Workshop Network (Fresno and Watsonville, CA) and Techbridge (Oakland, CA)—along with two science museums: Discovery Cube (Santa Ana, CA) and the Exploratorium (San Francisco, CA). Together, this group designed and implemented STEM-rich afterschool tinkering/making programs to serve youth from low-income, historically marginalized communities. These making and tinkering programs focus on learning STEM skills through the process of creating, building, or re-designing.

Check out the CTAN profile to learn more about:

  • Key characteristics of high-quality making/tinkering programs.
  • Youth outcomes related to high-quality, STEM-rich making/tinkering programs.
  • Building effective, and equitable partnerships with STEM-rich institutes and researchers.
  • Creating equitable programs that have positive outcomes for youth regardless of gender, ability, socioeconomic status, or community of origin.
  • Professional development strategies to support high-quality making/tinkering.

For more information on a variety of ways to approach STEM learning, check out our STEM Program Profiles!

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learn more about: Robotics Science Community Partners


Turn concepts into creations for the National Week of Making!

By Erin Murphy

The act of "making" is to use the process of creating, building or re-designing to learn new things about our world.

Join us in celebrating making this week by participating in the White House’s 2016 National Week of Making, June 17-23. The focus of this year’s event is to highlight the diversity of makers: young and old, experienced and novice, rural and urban. Afterschool programs have long focused on providing hands-on, experiential learning opportunities that allow kids to explore and discover creatively. This week, we will showcase how afterschool is helping kids from various communities and backgrounds become makers!

As part of this campaign, we will be releasing a new program profile for the California Tinkering Afterschool Network (CTAN), a partnership of two museums and three afterschool programs focused on studying and implementing STEM-rich making in the afterschool space. Additionally, we will be participating in the Growing a Nation of Makers tweetchat, hosted by Design Squad. During the tweetchat on June 21 at 12 p.m. ET, we'll join a discussion on how we can help #GrowMakers. Finally, we will be sharing a guest blog from Techbridge, an afterschool program focused on introducing girls to science and engineering, in which the program's leaders will share their best-practices and teaching strategies for making in afterschool.

Get involved with the National Week of Making:

  • Tweet your Making experiences @afterschool4all with the hashtag #NationOfMakers or #WeekofMaking
  • Stay tuned for more blogs, tweets and Facebook posts from us to learn more about making in afterschool
  • Participate in the Growing a Nation of Makers #GrowMakers tweetchat where participants will share their knowledge and expertise around making. Tune in on June 21 at 12 p.m. ET with @Designsquad, @SWEtalk, @TheConnectory and @ngcproject.
  • Attend an event in your community

Respond to the White House’s call to action and make a commitment to helping spread the maker movement



Professional development improves afterschool STEM learning and student outcomes

By Erin Murphy

This blog is part of series highlighting articles from the third issue of the new Journal for Expanded Learning Opportunities (JELO). This is a peer-reviewed, open-access publication from the Central Valley Afterschool Foundation.

In one of the first studies linking STEM professional development to positive student outcomes in the afterschool context, Findings From an Afterschool STEM Learning Initiative: Links to Professional Development and Quality STEM Learning Experiences discusses the impact of high-quality professional development on afterschool staff and students. The study, by Deborah Lowe Vandell, Rahila Simzar, Pilar O’Cadiz, and Valerie Hall from the University of California – Irvine, reports that high-quality professional development for afterschool staff increases staff belief in the importance of STEM and staff competency. In turn, these gains by staff lead to the increased quality of STEM learning activities, improving student outcomes and their STEM learning experience in the program.

Awareness of the important role of afterschool in STEM education has been growing, but challenges implementing high-quality STEM programming in afterschool—such as limited staff experience with STEM, high staff turnover, and structural barriers—persist. The purpose of this study was to examine the impacts of a 3-year initiative, led by the California Afterschool Network, aimed at increasing STEM learning opportunities in publicly funded afterschool programs through professional development. The study—which evaluated 96 publicly funded California afterschool programs, measured staff beliefs and competency providing STEM programming, collected student outcomes, and documented close to 2,500 STEM activities—found:

  • High-quality professional development has a positive impact on afterschool staff. The study found that increases in the frequency of staff training, discussions of program issues and STEM programming, and meetings with school teachers and parents were all shown to have positive impacts on staff beliefs about the importance of STEM learning, as well as staff competency to implement STEM programming.
  • When afterschool staff have quality STEM professional development, it positively impacts student’s STEM learning experience. Increases in staff beliefs about the importance of STEM and staff competency were correlated with increased student engagement in activities and overall activity success.
  • Improved student outcomes in afterschool support overall academic engagement and success. Student engagement and activity success in their afterschool program were both shown to have positive impacts on student work habits, math efficacy, science efficacy, social competency and interest in science.

These results suggest high-quality professional development is an important part of high-quality afterschool STEM programming and has direct impacts on student outcomes. Additionally, a well-rounded, multi-pronged approach to staff development—including staff training, regular staff meetings, and staff communication with teachers and parents—is most effective.

Afterschool programming is an important part of K-12 STEM education, and it is clear that professional development plays a key role in helping programs provide high-quality STEM programming and encourages positive student outcomes. 

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learn more about: Science


Webinar recap: A new vision for STEM with the Framework for K-12 Science Education

By Erin Murphy

Last month, in partnership with the Research + Practice Collaboratory, we hosted a webinar discussing the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education and what it means for afterschool. The following speakers shared their expertise:

  1. Bronwyn Bevan, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Washington
  2. Katherine McNeill, Associate Professor of Science Education at Boston College
  3. Emily McLeod, Director of Curriculum at Techbridge
  4. Tracy Truzansky, Project Manager for Training at Vermont Afterschool

Bronwyn started the webinar off by introducing the Framework for K-12 Science Education, a report that articulates a new vision of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education needed for the 21st century. Its goal is to spell out exactly what all students need upon high school graduation in order to apply science to their daily life, critically consume science in the public sphere and go into the careers of their choice. Building on current research on how people best learn science, the Framework defines three key dimensions of STEM learning:

  1. Disciplinary Core Ideas: These include broad topic areas within the sciences, engineering and technology, such as chemistry, physics and earth sciences. There are fewer content areas, allowing students to delve deeper into each one.
  2. Cross-cutting themes: These themes, such as patterns, energy, and structure, connect across fields of science and are taught as part of all the disciplinary core ideas.
  3. STEM practices: These practices focus on sense-making from investigations, which entails using evidence from investigations to develop the best explanations.


New AmeriCorps VISTA members will strengthen STEM Ecosystems

By Alexis Steines

The Afterschool Alliance is partnering with the STEM Funders Network (SFN) and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to coordinate, train and supervise a new cohort of AmeriCorps VISTA members who will improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) “ecosystems” across America.

AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is one of several national service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). For more than 50 years, VISTA has been at the forefront of strengthening the capacities of communities and organizations to fight poverty.

VISTA members devote one year of their lives to challenge the root causes of poverty. They achieve this goal by mobilizing community volunteers and building connections between local resources, and by guiding individuals in low-income neighborhoods to make positive change. 

In the new STEM Ecosystem program, VISTA members will focus on building capacity to increase access to STEM education in afterschool and summer learning programs that are connected and coordinated with K-12 schools and districts. STEM Ecosystem VISTA members can achieve this mission by:

  • Creating partnerships with STEM-rich institutions or businesses;
  • Mapping the local STEM out-of-school time space;
  • Writing grant applications;
  • Creating new tools and resources that can be used to increase access to STEM learning; and more.

The Afterschool Alliance and CNCS will place up to 26 VISTA members at host sites across the country, with the members working full-time on the ground. To support and guide the work of these new VISTA members for STEM Ecosystems, the Afterschool Alliance is seeking a new Field Outreach Coordinator to join our staff in Washington, D.C. Please carefully read all available information before applying.

White House highlights project

As President Obama hosts the sixth and final White House Science fair of his Administration today, on April 13, the White House released this STEM fact sheet lauding the efforts of the Afterschool Alliance, CNCS, and SFN for the new STEM Ecosystems program. You can find the reference in the second bullet under “New Steps Being Announced by the Administration Today.”

In addition to all of the partners mentioned here, the Afterschool Alliance is appreciative of initial support for its national VISTA efforts from the Broadcom Foundation, Samueli Foundation, Schusterman Foundation, and Simons Foundation.

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learn more about: Obama Science Vista Community Partners


Upcoming webinar: Learn to Speak "STEM-ish"

By Anita Krishnamurthi

Given all the buzz around "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, it would be easy to assume that everyone knows about it and supports it. But as STEM education advocates know, it can still be challenging to make a compelling case for public investment in STEM education reform. And it can be harder still when it comes to STEM learning in afterschool programs.

But we have some tools and tips that can help! Join us for a webinar on Wednesday April 6 from 1-2 p.m. ET to learn how to craft your best message around afterschool STEM to expand public support.  

The Afterschool Alliance has been working with the FrameWorks Institute, an organization that specializes in framing issues in ways that will move public opinion, to come up with research-based communications strategies to make the most compelling case possible for afterschool STEM. In this webinar we will be joined by Jenn Nichols, a Senior Associate at the FrameWorks Institute, who will review common communications traps that can weaken your messages’ effectiveness. We will practice staying out of those traps using tested tools that work to increase people’s understanding of informal STEM learning, how it works, and why it matters.  

You can take a sneak peek at some of this work on the Afterschool STEM Hub website, a resource center with the tools you need to make the case for expanding and supporting innovative and engaging informal STEM learning.  

In Part 1 of the webinar, on April 6, we will be introducing a wide array of practical tools and communication tips. In Part 2 of the webinar, on May 3, we will showcase the remaining tools and address any questions that come up as you start to apply these in your own work.

Help STEM blast off in your afterschool program! Register here to attend the webinar.

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learn more about: Advocacy Events and Briefings Science


How the engineering design process is changing STEM learning

By Erin Murphy

As we celebrate Engineers Week, we'd like to highlight five new research briefs from the Relating Research to Practice (RR2P) project that help us further understand why and how engineering design is valuable to our students. 

For more research on out-of-school time STEM, follow the RR2P project on Twitter and Facebook

Does the engineering design process help students apply math and science content?

Science education reformers have recommended that engineering be introduced into the K–12 curriculum, arguing that engineering activities and lessons help students apply science and math content in real-world context. In this paper, Berland, Steingut and Ko characterize students’ participation in and understanding of the engineering design process and how it creates—or reduces—opportunities for students to apply math and science content. The authors used UTeachEngineering’s curriculum Engineer Your World to examine student understanding of the engineering design process. They reflect on the implications of these findings for engineering curriculum design and implementation.

KEYWORDS: Learning progressionsMathematicsQuestioning strategiesScientific practices

A connected learning approach to an engineering design challenge

In this paper, Evans, Lopez, Maddox, Drape and Duke investigate how five intentionally designed features of an out-of-school time program, Studio STEM, influenced middle school youths’ engagement in their learning. These features include: using engineering design and problem-based learning, integrating of new media, encouraging peer interaction, an “open-studio” environment, and the use of alternative assessment methods.

KEYWORDS: Afterschool/OSTEnvironmental awarenessMiddle schoolNSF-fundedProgram designTechnologyYouth engagement

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learn more about: Issue Briefs Science