When asked about the most important problem facing America today, Americans are most likely to point to the economy. STEM education is critical to the success of our future workforce—and therefore our economy. This makes STEM even more central in the minds of voters, and places it near the forefront in many candidates’ and policymakers’ speeches.
Adding to the sector that develops new products and tackles pressing problems also adds to the pool of people creating jobs for our economy, which, in turn, helps us all. In fact, one job in the high-tech sector leads to four new jobs in local goods and service industries. Over the next five years, employers will need to hire nearly 1 million employees with basic STEM literacy and more than 600,000 employees with advanced STEM knowledge.
Yet, a survey of CEOs of major US corporations conducted by the Business Round Table and Change the Equation revealed that approximately 60 percent of job openings require basic STEM literacy, and 42 percent require advanced STEM skills. However:
STEM is the future. Afterschool STEM opportunities spark STEM learning and prepare our nation’s children.
Preparing students’ futures for STEM careers is an exciting and solvable problem, but our schools can’t do it alone. Students spend less than 20 percent of their waking hours in a classroom, and they need more exposure to STEM subjects than that time allows. That’s why out-of-school time programs such as afterschool programs are crucial partners in STEM education improvement efforts.
When children get the opportunity to be immersed in STEM they become more fluent in it. Our goal is to give them as many opportunities as possible to gain hands-on experience with hypothesizing, experimentation and problem solving. The kinds of projects that kids tackle in afterschool STEM programs help them build relevant, real-life observation and analysis skills. Additionally, students gain and hone teamwork and communication skills—the critical 21st-century skills they will need to contribute as citizens and members of the workforce.
When we look out across the current system of afterschool opportunities, we can see that it’s patchy, like a map of charging stations with gaps in some areas—built in a way that provides fewer charging opportunities for some of our nation’s children than for others. Some students are in places with lots of opportunities to power up their STEM learning through access to great libraries, museums, science centers and afterschool programs. But other students are in charging dead zones—places where there just aren’t many high-quality learning opportunities to plug into.
Afterschool STEM learning opportunities play a proven role in helping kids gain STEM interests and skills. Talking about afterschool in the context of STEM is a great way to link afterschool to a number of important issues that voters, candidates and policy makers care about. Below are suggested talking points to share with candidates to help them make the connection between afterschool and STEM.
Seventy-five percent of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences report that their passion for science was first sparked in non-school environments (Friedman & Quinn, 2006).
There is now a significant body of research and evaluation studies that show high-quality afterschool STEM programs not only successfully engage children in STEM but build skills and help them view themselves as someone who can participate.
A majority of parents (73 percent) with children in afterschool programs report that their children receive some form of STEM activities in their programs, and 78 percent of parents report that STEM learning opportunities were important when selecting their child’s afterschool program.
The demand for afterschool STEM learning is very high in African-American, Hispanic, and low-income populations.
In a program in New Mexico, middle schoolers from all kinds of backgrounds, including children from rural areas, actively experiment with a computer programming language to create and test models of complex systems, such as the environment, or outbreaks of diseases. These models are then used to run simulations of “what if” scenarios to answer questions about real-world concerns, with local examples to make the learning come to life.
A study of one state’s afterschool programming found that when a site had a STEM partner, such as a science museum, an engineering firm, or a university, the experiences that students had tended to be much better in a variety of ways. The partnerships often weren’t very large—this was a case where a little bit of effort went a long way. Supporting the infrastructure that afterschool and summer learning providers need to connect with science professionals and experts in their region is an important, feasible step we can take.