Afterschool programs: At the STEM of learning (January 2008)
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Letting an Opportunity Pass
The U.S. Department of Labor is projecting that jobs requiring training in STEM will increase by 51 percent between 1998 and 2008, four times faster than overall job growth. By 2008, some six million job openings for scientists, engineers, and technicians will exist. Unfortunately, American students are losing ground to their international peers when it comes to earning degrees and going into careers in those lucrative, burgeoning fields.
A Matter of (Extra) Time
Both learners and teachers need more time—not to do more of the same, but to use all time in new, different, and better ways. The key to liberating learning lies in unlocking time.
Combining STEM learning with the youth development expertise of afterschool professionals has the potential to revolutionize both fields by integrating each other’s strengths. Afterschool programs are proven to teach the so-called “soft skills” of communication, problem solving, and teamwork, which young people need for any career. Making use of the hours after school for STEM activities gives students time to develop an interest in science, which is key to getting kids into STEM careers.
As a report from the Coalition for Science After School concluded: “After-school settings are optimal for providing engaging, hands-on STEM experiences, enabling students to apply, reinforce, and extend skills and concepts taught in school. And they are particularly conducive to project-based activities where a wide variety of children can participate in the design, construction, investigation, sense-making, and communication of science projects.”
Afterschool programs are also a positive addition to an education system that is seeking more options for delivering science learning experiences. Recent reports have found time for science limited in elementary classrooms. Elementary teachers are rarely science experts and need more resources to offer quality science opportunities. Several projects are finding success by inviting afterschool staff members to become part of the STEM education workforce. Curricula developed by NASA, the Educational Equity Center at The Academy for Educational Development, the Miami Museum of Science, the Intercultural Center for Research in Education, and several others is specifically designed and tested for use by the afterschool workforce. Other projects, including some funded by the National Science Foundation Academies for Young Scientists grants, are connecting pre-service teachers to afterschool to learn about science instruction that is youth-centered and open-ended.
Furthermore, afterschool programs’ connections to community organizations such as museums and science centers can change attitudes about math and science. Students from underrepresented communities can gain the necessary skills to compete in formal science classrooms. Some afterschool programs are already making headway, giving students extra time to explore the STEM fields:
A Promising Remedy
Afterschool programs have proven to be effective supports for young people on a variety of fronts; including fostering healthy lifestyles, preventing drop-outs, boosting students’ academic achievement and self-esteem, and helping young people find and develop their passions. As the public and parents become more concerned about today’s students falling behind in math and science, they are realizing that the extra hours after school can be used to help our young people keep up and even excel. In fact, a recent poll found that 81 percent of Americans favor expanding afterschool programs as a means to increasing students’ access to math and science education, even if this increases the per-pupil spending.
Afterschool programs alone can not make up all the lost ground. They can and should, however, be part of a more comprehensive approach to giving more young people a chance to discover an interest in STEM, and an aptitude that could lead many -- especially those from underrepresented populations – to choose degrees and careers in the STEM fields.
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