Director of STEM Policy, Afterschool Alliance
Executive Director, Noyce Foundation
Senior Director for Strategic Philanthropy and Community Affairs, Time Warner Cable
Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills are increasingly necessary to navigate an ever-more complex world and a globalized economy. There is tremendous energy and momentum to improve these skills among our citizens and students so they can participate fully in contemporary society and the modern economy.
Yet most strategies and policies for reforming STEM education focus on what happens during the school day. While schools are absolutely essential for learning, we must acknowledge that children spend less than 20% of their waking hours in schools each year, and some persuasively argue that school is not where most Americans learn most of their science anyway (Falk & Dierkling, 2010).
Hence, efforts to improve and increase STEM education opportunities must include programs that take place during the afterschool hours and the summer. [Insert learning time graphic, see attached.] Despite the need for many more quality afterschool and summer programs, more than 8 million young people already attend afterschool programs (Afterschool Alliance, 2009).
In addition, there is a sizeable infrastructure of programming and support (for example, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative and the California Afterschool and Safety Program) focused especially on serving young people from groups that are typically under-represented in the STEM fields. This is a large and growing field that local, state, and national education and business leaders and policy makers interested in STEM and K–12 education reform should pay attention to.
Afterschool and summer programs all over the United States are offering engaging, hands-on STEM learning programs that are not only getting children excited about these topics, but are also helping them build some real-life skills and proficiencies.
Afterschool and summer programs all over the United States are offering engaging, hands-on STEM learning programs that are not only getting children excited about these topics, but are also helping them build some real-life skills and proficiencies. There is mounting evidence that demonstrates the impact of these settings. A recent analysis of evaluation studies of several afterschool STEM programs showed that high quality programs can lead to increased interest and improved attitudes toward STEM fields and careers, increased STEM knowledge and skills, and increased likelihood of pursuing STEM majors and careers (Afterschool Alliance, 2011b).
The impact of these types of expanded learning programs and extracurricular activities is also reflected in improvements in academic performance, as noted in the research cited by many other authors in this compendium. Other recent research also reveals the importance of out-of-school-time settings for STEM education. Tai, Liu, Maltese, and Fan (2006) found, for example, that early engagement with STEM fields was crucial and that a professed interest in STEM careers by eighth grade was a more accurate predictor of getting a science-related college degree than were the math or science test scores for average students. Thus, early encouragement of elementary and middle school students in STEM fields can be very effective in influencing their choice of college majors. Additionally, Wai, Lubinski, Benbow, and Steiger (2010) found that students who had more opportunities to participate in STEM learning (including beyond the classroom) were more likely to follow STEM career pathways and excel in them.
Afterschool programs are well placed to deliver on these needs by not only providing additional time to engage in STEM topics but also by doing so in a manner that is different from school and that engages different types of learners. These programs can also be very effective in improving access to STEM fields and careers among populations that are currently greatly underrepresented – women, African Americans, and Hispanics (Beede et al., 2011a; Beede et al., 2011b)—helped in part by the fact that African American and Hispanic children participate in afterschool programs in greater numbers (Afterschool Alliance, 2009).
Promising Trends in Afterschool STEM Learning
Afterschool programs are no strangers to STEM programming. STEM-rich institutions, such as museums and universities, as well as youth groups such as 4-H, Girls Inc., Girl Scouts, etc., that have deep roots in their communities, have been offering afterschool STEM programs for many decades. What has changed in the past decade is that they have renewed and deepened their commitment and that the average afterschool provider has also become interested in offering such opportunities to the children they serve. The only federal funding source exclusively dedicated to afterschool and summer learning programming, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, is now emphasizing STEM as a priority area for its grantees. Indeed, the importance of this key funding source cannot be overstated, as it is essential for providing the basic programs and infrastructure that many other STEM-focused partners can tap into to expand learning opportunities for students.
Funding from this federal initiative has significantly leveraged additional resources for STEM programming. For example, the Noyce Foundation is a private philanthropic foundation that invests heavily in afterschool STEM learning through innovative partnerships. A C. S. Mott Foundation-Noyce Foundation collaboration currently is active in 16 states and will continue to expand among the nation’s growing number of state afterschool networks, which are supported by the Mott Foundation. Also Noyce is investing in “Project LIFTOFF,” an initiative to develop and nurture afterschool STEM systems in 10 Midwestern states. This initiative has led many school districts to combine their foundation funding with their 21st Century Community Learning Centers funding to offer exceptionally high quality afterschool STEM opportunities.
Nebraska BLAST! will provide high quality STEM training to staff of all of Nebraska’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs and will give thousands of Nebraska youth the opportunity to engage in exciting, hands-on STEM experiences.
In 2011, the Nebraska 21st Century Community Learning Centers program received a NASA Summer of Innovation grant to launch Nebraska BLAST! This is a 4-year collaborative initiative that brings together STEM content specialists with teachers and afterschool staff from schools that receive funding through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative. This effort will provide high quality STEM training to staff of all of Nebraska’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs and will give thousands of Nebraska youth the opportunity to engage in exciting, hands-on STEM experiences through their local program.
As schools, communities, and parents negotiate how to provide additional learning opportunities for their children and youth, afterschool and summer programs that work closely with schools provide a model to meet this need. Research shows that afterschool programs that are well aligned with the school day and have strong community ties have optimal benefits for kids (Afteschool Alliance, 2011a).
The corporate sector is also getting deeply involved in afterschool STEM education. Change the Equation is a nonprofit organization that was formed to help companies with their STEM education-related philanthropy. Most of the philanthropic investments of these companies focus on the “informal education” arena, which includes afterschool.
For example, in 2009, Time Warner Cable (TWC) decided to focus the majority of its philanthropic resources on a single cause. The result was Connect a Million Minds (CAMM)—a 5-year, $100 million cash and in-kind commitment to inspire students to engage in math and science learning. To bring this commitment to life, TWC supports FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a robotics organization with a model proven to engage young people in STEM learning also funded by 21st Century Community Learning Centers programs in areas across the country. On a national level, TWC also partners with the Coalition for Science After School to provide the “Connectory,” a free, online resource that makes it easy for parents and teachers to find informal STEM learning opportunities. In addition, TWC brings the impact of CAMM to its local markets by supporting FIRST teams and competitions, science museums, and other nonprofit organizations that are engaging kids in STEM.
Several FIRST teams have also utilized 21st Century Community Learning Centers funding with great success. The Camdenton R-III Afterschool Science, Engineering and Robotics program in rural Missouri receives funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative and has leveraged that to great effect. Their team has won several awards, including the regional competition that has allowed them to go to the finals for 2 years in a row. The Safe Harbor Before and After School Program in Michigan City, Indiana, which has received 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds for many years, worked with the Indiana Afterschool Network and the Indiana Department of Education to develop a FIRST Robotics team in 2012. The team won the All Star Rookie award in the Midwest and went to the national championship.
It is becoming clear that there is a great need—and a prime opportunity—to tap the potential of afterschool and summer learning programs to serve an urgent national priority to enhance STEM education. Deliberate action by all key stakeholders is required, however, to help afterschool and summer programs fully realize this potential and become strategic—and integral—partners in STEM education.
Federal and state education policies must ensure, in particular, that afterschool and summer programs are included in STEM education policy initiatives if this to become a sustainable, long-term practice (Krishnamurthi, 2012; Afterschool Alliance, 2012).
In addition, the afterschool field must also adopt several strategies to become effective partners in STEM education:
Afterschool programs must deliberately commit to offering STEM learning opportunities and then prioritize and allocate resources to provide professional development in STEM programming areas to staff.
Afterschool intermediary organizations and large networks must widely promote existing high quality curricula to avoid wasting scarce resources on developing new programs and curricula.
The field must reach consensus around youth outcome indicators and adopt them widely so that programs have a clear vision of their goals and role within the STEM education ecosystem. A local- or state-level hub is often a necessity for disseminating information and coordinating professional development efforts and other STEM programming needs for afterschool. This may include seeking partnerships with STEM-rich institutions, such as science museums and universities, as well as other science and math hubs in many states.
Meaningful STEM learning that extends beyond one-shot experiences are necessary. Afterschool and summer programs must pay close attention to offering regular, consistent programming in STEM topics. Furthermore, wherever possible, programs must offer a continuum of STEM learning experiences that extend into middle and high school in order to derive maximum impact from their STEM programming.