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Afterschool STEM Programs: Lessons for K-12 Science Classes

STEM has become a popular acronym in education circles in recent years—for good reason.

According to last year’s U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, the number of American STEM jobs increased by 28 percent between 2000 and 2015, compared with a 6 percent increase in jobs in other economic sectors.

These numbers should come as no surprise when we consider the explosion of science and technology in recent years.

Yet, despite rapid growth and career demand, many school districts still struggle to provide students with quality STEM learning opportunities.

According to a recent video report from Education Week and the PBS Newshour, a little more than half of fourth-grade students have access to hands-on science activities once a week in school. And, though most eighth-graders have access to science lab programs, less than half of those labs are properly supplied.

To spark students’ interest in science and technology, some school districts have turned to afterschool programs focused on STEM. Now, some suggest the success of these programs could be instructive when making changes to in-school STEM programs.

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Making students SMILE in Rhode Island

Take the SMILE program, which serves nearly 500 fourth grade to twelfth grade students throughout Rhode Island.

SMILE invites students to stay after school one day a week to participate in STEM-related projects. The goal: to expose students to STEM fields and to sustain their interest into their middle and high school years.

As Carol Englander, director of SMILE, tells the PBS Newshour:

“We work very hard at promoting a cohesive peer group where everyone knows it’s cool to be smart. They identify with science, they identify with STEM, and that carries them into high school to take the harder science and math courses.”

Another goal of SMILE and similar afterschool programs is to increase the diversity of students who pursue STEM jobs including low-income, minority, and female students.

“Right now science is dominated by white men,” middle school science teacher Janelle Haire tells the Newshour. “I don’t know if you noticed in our club, it’s not all white men. So, it’s really to show them too, that you can be an engineer, regardless of your race or your gender or your age or your education or where you’re from.”

Learning to fail

To encourage diverse participation in STEM learning, SMILE and other programs take an unorthodox approach.

As reporter Lisa Stark points out, such programs aim to eliminate the high-stakes competition of school and replace it with an open, exploratory approach to science and technology.

Instead of tests, SMILE students are encouraged to try new things, fail, and learn from their mistakes—important life lessons, but also important traits for future job candidates angling to enter the technology and science fields.

As afterschool STEM programs expand nationwide, educators should pay close attention to the different ways emerging afterschool programs engage and excite students.

For more about SMILE and programs like it, check out the full Education Week/PBS Newshour report below.

What steps does your school or district take to promote STEM during or after school? Does your school or district use afterschool programs to foster an interest in science and technology? Tell us in the comments.