Written by: Bob Seidel & Kate Shatzkin from the National Summer Learning Association
Studies estimate that nearly 80 percent of future careers will require awareness of and facility with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But American students are behind their peers in other countries in these subjects, and afterschool and summer learning programs are striving to be part of the solution. Because they do not face all of the constraints of the regular school day and year, afterschool and summer learning programs often have greater flexibility to allow students to learn through practical activities in their communities, including service-learning projects.
The National Summer Learning Association, the Afterschool Alliance, and the National AfterSchool Association have joined forces to make 2011 the “Year of Science” for afterschool and summer learning programs. Our goal is both to communicate the benefits of the unique settings and hands-on projects these programs can provide to spark students’ interest in STEM subjects, and to help equip the field with the resources it needs to fully engage youth beyond the school day.
Many summer and afterschool programs already play a major role in engaging students in STEM through hands-on, project-based learning that complements traditional school day learning. STEM is really about the ability to understand our world, about problem-solving, about inventing something new. Summer programs can take advantage of exciting natural laboratories, whether it’s a bay where students can test water quality or a community garden where students can organize neighbors while studying plant genetics.
Increasingly, summer and afterschool STEM learning are seen not just as a nice add-on, but a critical component in development of these skills for American youth. In a recent article in American Scientist magazine (http://caise.insci.org/uploads/docs/FalkandDierking95perc.pdf), Oregon State University researchers John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking wrote that “an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.” The researchers also noted that a 2009 report on informal science learning environments by the National Research Council found that “not only do free-choice science learning experiences jump-start a child’s long-term interest in science topics, they also can significantly improve science understanding among populations typically underrepresented in science.”
To harness their full potential to contribute to the STEM learning movement, though, those who run afterschool and summer learning programs say they need not just training and money, but mentors who can show young people what science and math will allow them to do in life. Engaging older students and adults as STEM mentors, during both the school year and the summer, is another exciting way to link the movements promoting high-quality service-learning and out-of-school-time learning.
For more information, visit the websites of the Afterschool Alliance (www.afterschoolalliance.org), the National AfterSchool Association (www.naaweb.org), and the National Summer Learning Association (www.summerlearning.org).
Bob is policy director of the National Summer Learning Association and a member of the Service-Learning United leadership team. Kate is marketing and communications director of the National Summer Learning Association. For more information, contact Bob at email@example.com.