Few dispute that the after-school community has a vital role, and can make a crucial difference, in promoting science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, learning. Yet after-school providers are often so immersed in their work with students that they don't always present a unified voice in articulating their impact.
A 2013 Afterschool Alliance study that I led, "Defining Youth Outcomes for STEM Learning in Afterschool,Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader" could help change that. By reaching consensus among a group of after-school experts (including 55 experienced providers and 25 after-school STEM supporters, such as funders and national and state education policy leaders), the study lays out three major, achievable outcomes for youths in after-school STEM programs:
- Developing interest in STEM and related learning activities;
- Developing capacities to productively engage in STEM learning activities; and
- Valuing the goals of STEM and STEM learning activities.
These are vital contributions that can change students' lives. Yet many in the after-school community are pessimistic that their impact will be recognized and valued. They aren't as confident about affecting the in-school outcomes that policymakers often focus on—grades and test scores—as they are about improving "foundational" skills, such as problem-solving and teamwork.
The after-school community needs to reinforce the point that its role in STEM isn't an either-or proposition, particularly as Congress moves to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and considers where after-school programs fit into K-12 funding priorities. It takes both after-school and in-school STEM efforts, and their respective strengths, to move toward educating a STEM-savvy workforce that can compete in the global economy.
After-school programs are uniquely suited to engaging students in flexible, hands-on learning that can spark an interest in STEM. They also build real skills and help students appreciate the value of science, technology, engineering, and math for themselves and their communities. That's why such programs are often the home of robotics and rocketry teams and environmental education programs, and why after-school educators frequently work with STEM-related companies and university professors, among others, to give students a glimpse of future careers in the field.
"It takes both after-school and in-school STEM efforts ... to move toward educating a STEM-savvy workforce."
Such experiences can make all the difference for some students and provide a critical complement to their in-school classroom time. Moreover, by broadening the base of students who are interested in STEM, after-school programs increase both the diversity and sheer numbers of students likely to succeed in science and math classrooms—and careers.
Another report, also released in January by the organizations My College Options and STEM connector and called "Where Are the STEM Students?Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader," reveals that the number of high school seniors interested in pursuing STEM-related studies in college and beyond has increased 20 percent since 2004. After-school programs can support continued growth in that area, as well as help address an increasing gender gap noted in the study, since a fundamental strength of after-school programs is their ability to reach underserved and underrepresented populations.
Indeed, the after-school community has seen increased interest from philanthropies and the business community precisely because many funders recognize that progress will not happen without the kind of informal STEM education that is offered after school.
Conversations around major STEM learning outcomes (as well as a number of indicators and sub-indicators of progress outlined in the Afterschool Alliance's study) cannot wait. As the reauthorization of the ESEA progresses and states devise new assessment measures in line with the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, policies that directly affect the funding and focus of many after-school programs will take effect.
At this crucial time, the outcomes and the associated indicators of learning identified here can, I hope, give the after-school community the clarity it needs to show what it does best and help policymakers understand that after-school programs are an essential partner without which STEM learning can't thrive.
Anita Krishnamurthi is the director of STEM policy for the Afterschool Alliance, in Washington. She is an astrophysicist who formerly worked for NASA.
Vol. 32, Issue 23, Page 26