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Out-of-school STEM during a pandemic: An interview with leaders from FIRST, Learn Fresh, and Girlstart

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Out-of-school STEM during a pandemic: An interview with leaders from FIRST, Learn Fresh, and Girlstart

By Gemma Lenowitz, associate program officer for Inspired Minds at the Overdeck Family Foundation. This article was originally published on the Overdeck Family Foundation's website on November 30, 2020. It is reposted here with the author's permission.

Erica Fessia is vice president of field operations at FIRST. Nick Monzi is CEO & co-founder at Learn Fresh. Tamara Hudgins is executive director of Girlstart.

As the lines blurred between in-school and out-of-school in 2020, it prompted many questions about how organizations that traditionally work with students out-of-school have fared. We had a chance to catch up with the leaders of FIRST, Learn Fresh, and Girlstart - three leading out-of school STEM organizations - and ask them how the events of this year have affected their operations, plans, and outlook on the future. The responses below were condensed and edited for clarity. 

FIRST, a global robotics nonprofit that advances STEM education, has been a grantee of the Inspired Minds portfolio for three years. This past year, we supported FIRST with $600k toward COVID rapid response and general operating support. Through their equity, diversity & inclusion strategies, FIRST reaches over 26,000 economically disadvantaged students in PreK-12th grade each year. A longitudinal study of FIRST found that participants in PreK-12 programs are 2.4x more likely to have gains in STEM interest, 2x more likely to have gains in STEM identity, and 1.7x more likely to have gains in STEM knowledge compared to similarly matched non-participants. 

Girlstart, which designs and implements innovative, high quality informal STEM education programs that inspire girls to experience STEM, has been a grantee of the Foundation for three years. This past year, we supported their expansion and digital offerings with a $250k general operating support grant. Girlstart serves students year-round in three states, and summertime in eight states, after which 95 percent of participating girls say, “I hope my job will be in STEM.”

Learn Fresh joined the Inspired Minds portfolio in 2020 with a $300k grant aimed at helping them innovate and scale their existing programs. The organization manages NBA Math Hoops, a comprehensive community program featuring a basketball board game, mobile app, and curriculum that allows students to learn foundational math skills that cut across Common Core and state standards in third through eighth grade. The program is provided for free to educators nationwide, with 93 percent of the 4,600-plus participating teachers serving low-income communities. During the 2019 season, students who completed the program experienced a 35 percent increase in their math fluency scores, compared with a 22 percent increase for students in a control group. The same students experienced an 18 percent improvement on a NAEP-aligned math assessment evaluating higher-order math skills, compared with a 2 percent increase for a control group from the same communities.

Your organizations were rapidly growing prior to COVID-19. How has the pandemic affected your operations and scaling plans?

FIRST: The pandemic stopped us in our tracks, but also provided an accelerator to a lot of the work that we were already thinking about. In wanting to provide greater access, we needed to have different ways to provide content--remotely and digitally. We know the hands-on experience is a critical component, but we can retain a lot of the other components of our program in a remote environment.

Girlstart: The pandemic has asked us to push pause on scaling to new communities, but we haven’t pushed pause, organizationally. Girlstart has been trying to redefine what hands-on, interpersonally engaged, STEM learning looks like despite the screen. While the pandemic has certainly encouraged us to be flexible, we haven’t let it diminish our commitment to ensuring that girls have active engagement in hands-on STEM education.

Learn Fresh: In a sense, the fallout of the pandemic has turbocharged our path toward programmatic and organizational scale. Over the past 2-3 years, we’ve been building a steady growth trajectory for our flagship program, NBA Math Hoops, which reached over 100,000 students for the first time last school year. Throughout 2020, we’ve been able to access resources to double down on our work in the digital space, and it’s allowed us to expand our program in ways that add depth and promote equity through both a virtual and physical product. 

Most people believe that encouraging students to explore and participate in STEM activities is crucial to helping them have the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century. Can you talk to us about why doing those activities after school is particularly important? 

Girlstart: The after school environment permits and fosters fun. If we’re trying to find ways for children to engage in more science activities, they will learn better if they are having fun doing it. Informal STEM is perfect for this. That “wow” moment feeds and nourishes the brain, which then seeks more of these experiences. And then students will seek out more opportunities to do more of these activities. That’s when we know we’ve really got a girl connected: when STEM becomes personal for her, and she sees STEM as an integral part of her life and her future. That’s the message of the Million Girls Moonshot: inspiring them to become builders, innovators, makers and problem solvers.

FIRST: It's not just building the robot, it's everything around building the robot and making it viable in the real world. 

After school gives more time to learn how to work as part of a team, how to have confidence in your ideas while also giving space to others’ ideas, and how to incorporate and balance those ideas to have an end product that is better than any individual idea.

Learn Fresh: The after school context provides such a powerful space for student exploration. Whereas most school-day classrooms default to prescriptive learning, after school programs are quite collaborative and creative by nature. The type of programs and curricula implemented after school regularly give students a chance to problem solve together, remain physically active, and engage in experiences that feel personal and relevant to them. Leveraging that context as a vehicle for STEM inquiry, which remains essential for the success of our future workforce and for greater social equity, is tactically critical. The after school space can also teach students to love STEM in ways that inspire their success during the school day, as we’ve observed countless times with NBA Math Hoops.

There’s been a lot written about the widening gap in students’ academic and socioemotional needs due to COVID-19. What role do you believe your programs, and after school STEM in general, can play in closing these gaps?

Learn Fresh: As a foundational principle of our work, we believe that every STEM program should have an embedded social-emotional component. Due to the highly collaborative nature of after school education, it’s the perfect space for doubling down on the connection between STEM and social-emotional learning. When you place STEM skills into almost any professional context, you find a work environment in which practices like collaboration, integrity, and compromise are necessary. Our programs equally balance the development of each. 

Girlstart: We’ve wrapped our entire Summer Camp and After School programs in SEL strategies, because we see how this year has been so devastating for children academically and emotionally. We have made sure that every girl in our programs receives all the STEM supplies and materials that they need to be successful and have a positive experience (including technology). Our STEM CREW (the college students that lead our programs, who we consider creative, empowered, resourceful women) also take care in every moment to foster a sense of belonging for every girl. Every moment is an opportunity to connect, or disconnect. 

FIRST: At FIRST, we believe we can have a more accelerated impact for underrepresented STEM communities in the after school hours because we can bring more resources to bear to overcome what would be financial and access barriers. For example, 89 percent of the students who participated in programs served by our STEM Equity Community Innovation Grants increased skills in STEM interest and engagement, teamwork, leadership, and problem solving. Ninety percent of these students were economically disadvantaged, which makes these results even more impressive.

The distinction between in-school and out-of-school has never been blurrier than this year. How has the pandemic affected your view of the role family plays in effective STEM learning?

FIRST: FIRST at Home has made even clearer the role families play in student learning. Our interest is in supporting families in their understanding and access to STEM learning because, for a student who is a first-generation college student, to be able to get family support is really critical. 

Girlstart: We have deepened our conversations with parents this year, and we’ve gained a lot of feedback from them. Parents tell us what they see when their daughter participates in our programs. Sometimes they connect further to our mission. Sometimes they learn something new about their own daughters. Sometimes, they learn something about themselves. All of this helps us get better at this work.
Learn Fresh: The pandemic has forced us to more thoroughly develop our direct-to-family distribution and support plan, as we have historically acquired more than 95 percent of our lifetime impact from work with educators in school-day and after school contexts. This year, one of our greatest highlights was our NBA Math Hoops National Championship, which was held virtually with families for the first time.

Moving forward, our goal for all programs is to define and publicly champion clear applications for at-home, after school, and school-day use. We hope to be a leader for the field in this sense — if more programs considered how their content could cut cleanly across all of these spaces, learning would be a far more collaborative process for our students.

What are your predictions for the after school field in the next 5-10 years given the reduction in access to programs due to COVID-19?

Learn Fresh: Given the fact that after school and out-of-school programs play a critical role as childcare for many families, their importance could actually increase over time, especially if students find themselves spending less time in formal classroom settings. The hope is that funding will follow to sustain and grow quality programming, particularly through government channels.

Another trend that hopefully does continue to strengthen is the connection between traditional classroom content and the quality of curricula in the after school space. We’ve observed an increased desire to feature rigorous content in after school programs in recent years, and that has seemingly continued to strengthen through the pandemic. Our hope is that more content creators consider that connection and build in ways that support educators across both spaces.

FIRST: Out-of-school time is going to become even more important. Students will be catching up in the in-school time, so the enrichment and broadening of their perspective has to happen after school. A focus on providing as much access to that as possible will continue to be at the core of our mission.

Girlstart: I hope that the education community sees how after school programs really do support and drive learning, engagement in school, academic performance, safety, and future success. After school programs do what the formal learning environment can’t. I hope that more of a cognizance—from the policy level, from the state and national level, from the district leadership level—of that symbiosis begins to emerge. 

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