After School and Summer: Ideal Times for STEM Learning
Post written by Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance; Sarah Pitcock, interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association; and Gina Warner, executive director of the National AfterSchool Association
There's no getting around it—to stack the odds in favor of career success and a competitive nation, kids today must embrace and develop proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. Nearly 80 percent of future careers will require some STEM skills. Regardless of eventual career choice, skills required to master STEM subjects—analysis, problem solving, and critical thinking—are universally valuable.
But with increasing demands placed on teachers and the limited hours available, how are students supposed to secure relevant knowledge and skills? The truth is, schools simply can't do it alone nor can they fit it all in the already-packed school-year schedule.
A 10-month study recently conducted by the Afterschool Alliance found clear consensus among participating after-school providers that after-school and summer programs help youth to develop an interest in STEM and the capacities to productively engage in and value the goals of STEM and STEM learning activities.
The advent of the Next Generation Science Standards, which focus on cross-cutting concepts and practices, makes STEM-focused after-school and summer programs all the more relevant. It will be very difficult for schools to implement the standards on their own. High-quality programs well-coordinated with what's happening in school will be essential partners to support implementation of the new standards in districts.
The Afterschool Alliance, the National Afterschool Association, and the National Summer Learning Association (a whole child partner organization), with support from the Noyce Foundation, are engaged in a multiyear effort to help equip programs to provide high-quality STEM activities and instructions for youth in after-school and summer programs. These programs offer time for exploration, complex thinking, and hands-on learning essential to STEM learning; and community partners provide staffing and other critical supports.
So, what do these programs look like? Fortunately, there is no shortage of examples.
- Last summer, students in the Worcester County (Md.) School District built rockets during the summer with help from NASA. Staff at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility helped provide professional development for summer teachers, while supporting books and lessons reinforced the rocket theme in reading and math lessons throughout the summer.
- Another popular program, the Adler Summer Teen Internship Program, connects Chicago Public Schools' high school students with museum professionals in authentic career experiences that vary from science research and engineering initiatives to museum-exhibit interpretation for visitors. Teens work on everything from planning large public multimedia events to working with high-altitude weather balloons sending scientific payloads 100,000 feet above the Earth.
- The Girlstart after-school program in Austin, Tex., encourages girls' interest in STEM through mentoring and hands-on activities. It promotes early engagement and academic success in STEM subjects as a step on the path to higher education and greater career choices. One example—building models of the sea floor—allowed the girls to simulate fossilization and experience firsthand that paleontology is delicate, detailed work. Another experiment entailed building a model of a town and then simulating an earthquake and resultant landslides. The students then measured and documented their observations, just as a seismologist would.
- This summer, for middle school students in Providence, R.I., at the AfterZone Summer Scholars Program, activities like sailing provided an innovative "classroom" for math lessons. Measuring wind speed and sail angles helps to shed new light on geometry and physics. And, through a partnership with the Audubon Society and Save the Bay, students drew samples from local ponds and waterways and analyzed them.
The possibilities for STEM-focused after-school and summer programs are limitless. For more examples like these, check out the National After School Science Directory. Science centers across the nation offer a variety of interesting programs.
No matter what the program specifics, after-school and summer programs offer the environment and the time to investigate STEM topics in compelling and innovative ways. Smart school leaders are recognizing that after-school and summer are ideal times to inspire kids—and teachers—and build knowledge of STEM skills essential to our individual and collective success.
Since 2005, Jodi Grant has been executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit public awareness and advocacy organization working to ensure that all children and youth have access to quality, affordable after-school programs. As executive director, Grant is overseeing all aspects of the Afterschool Alliance's work, setting its goals and strategies for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Sarah Pitcock joined the Center for Summer Learning in 2006 and held progressive leadership roles in research and training prior to being appointed interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association in 2013. Her major work includes the development of the Comprehensive Assessment of Summer Programs and the Summer Matters technical assistance model for the state of California. Pitcock also directs the Smarter Summers and District Summer Learning initiatives, serving more than 20,000 middle school students across 16 school districts.
Gina Warner is the executive director of the National Afterschool Association, the leading voice of the after-school profession dedicated to the development, education, and care of children and youth during their out-of-school hours. Warner has more than 16 years of experience in nonprofit administration and driving investment into the after-school field. She also has many years of experience providing development and public relations services to nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies.