The technology industry has raised an alarm. There are not enough workers trained in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to fill positions in their companies. Non-STEM industries increasingly demand employees with STEM skills, such as computing skills and problem-solving abilities. Responsible citizenship requires that voters have a basic knowledge of science when considering public policy issues such as energy resources and climate change issues. The challenge for America’s schools is to graduate all students with the STEM skills and knowledge necessary to meet the 21st century demands of business and society. After school programs play a crucial role in educating the next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, according to a July 2014 report by the Afterschool Alliance.
After school programs are moving in a STEM direction
The Afterschool Alliance reports that approximately 8.4 million children participate in after school programs (this figure includes before school and summer programs.) School-based programs that began as homework clubs have morphed into science clubs, and private organizations, such as 4-H and the Girl Scouts of America, have developed STEM programs to actively engage their young members in STEM. Girls and minorities, groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields, participate in these after school programs at rates greater than the rates at which they are represented in STEM college programs and careers.
After school programs offer a fundamentally different learning environment
The blocks of time outside the typical seven-hour school day of formal classes gives students the opportunity to engage in learning activities in a less-formal, more social, way. This extension of the school day builds upon a school’s culture of learning and is proving to be an effective way of widening students’ exposure to STEM skills and knowledge. Participation in STEM after school programs nurture a student’s STEM “identity,” a recognition by the student that he or she can pursue a STEM career. This identity, according to a study by King’s College London, is critical to increasing student interest in STEM subjects. King’s College Aspire Project found that most students hold the belief that scientists are mostly white, middle class, “brainy” individuals. This belief prevented many students from even considering careers in STEM for themselves.
Once students engage in hands-on science and technology projects, they begin to reconfigure their beliefs about themselves and their abilities. After school programs have a social component —students work in cooperation with their peers, they are fun and students have more autonomy than in a classroom setting. These factors contribute to deeper learning, and the skills and knowledge obtained are better encoded in the students’ memory. Students remember what they learn when the learning evokes emotions.
The Science Club — a program that works
The Science Club, a partnership between the Girls and Boys Clubs of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, provides middle school students with after school mentoring in STEM. Graduate students from Northwestern University lead groups of students in designing and conducting science experiments. The curricula focused on health and biomedical careers with an emphasis on experiment design, data analysis and evidence-based conclusions. Nearly all the students in the program are from lower-income families (94 percent of students in the program are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) and minorities are well represented.
The majority of students, 94 percent, report they enjoy the Science Club activities more than their school science classes, and 84 percent of participants say they wish to continue as mentors when they are in high school. On average, students in Science Club stay with the program for 1.5 years, with 84 percent attending every week. According to the Afterschool Alliance report, Science Club participants significantly outperformed non-participants in assessments of science skills. Additionally, 56 percent of Science Club students said they were confidence in their ability to conduct science experiments. This compares to 32 percent reported confidence from students who are not in the program.
After school programs do not replace in-school learning, but serve as a complement to classroom instruction. The hands-on learning embraced by these programs is motivational, and it supports youth development by offering students the opportunity to discover and grow in their chosen direction. The Afterschool Alliance report concludes that these programs work best when schools, private organizations and businesses and government agencies work together to provide these experiences for the nation’s students.
Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.