The Great STEM Leap

Lucy FriedmanWhen you consider the range of science and tech experiences now available to students outside of classes—from cloning bacteria to earning digital art Girl Scout badges—it’s hard to believe the resistance that TASC faced when we first introduced science inquiry into New York City after-school programs. Of course that was ages ago in tech time: 2006.

Two years earlier, the National Science Foundation had convened 40 leaders from the science disciplines and after-school to see if we could inject more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) into organized after-school programs. Research was telling us that the best way to point kids toward STEM careers is to give them early, exciting exposure to hands-on science inquiry. After-school was the perfect place: no short class periods, no pressure to avoid mistakes and find the “right” answers, just time and a culture that encouraged curiosity, group projects and messy experimentation.

A group of us formed the national Coalition for Science After School, and the founding director spent a summer in TASC’s office writing a blueprint for the out-of-school time field.

We taught staff how to transform inexpensive items into hands-on science activities, such as these spectroscopes.

TASC began to introduce science curricula for non-science pedagogues into New York City programs. We ran into a wall of skepticism. Principals, teachers, heads of community organizations running after-school programs, program staff—all resisted. Many could not get comfortable with the idea of anyone but science teachers touching science.

In other cities, Coalition partners hit similar roadblocks. Many education and youth development leaders were unaware of the engagement-focused curricula designed by organizations like the Educational Equity Center for community educators to lead with curious kids. Many after-school educators did not feel confident in their own science knowledge. They feared making mistakes in front of kids. In response we made it clear that their job was not to help kids memorize facts, but to lead them in solving problems and exploring scientific questions.

We needed to help shift the whole school-and-after-school bureaucracy away from the idea that science is only for experts. The Noyce Foundation gave us support to try a two-pronged approach. We convened decision-makers, including city and school district leaders, to introduce them to the benefits of science inquiry in the hours after 3. At the same time we trained and coached after-school staff members to be science explorers alongside kids, following the same patterns and methods of inquiry as their students.

I can tell you that hands-on science became a hit with kids, sending them outdoors to places they’d never been before – fishing boats, hiking trails, tracking migrating birds. See for yourself.

After-school educators helped students became scientists in their own communities by dissecting owl pellets and testing water quality.

We named this double-barreled strategy—targeting both decision-makers and front line staff—FUSE, for Frontiers in Urban Science Education. As I shared at a meeting of Grantmakers for Education recently, FUSE is a splendid example of how foundations can leverage public investment by providing early funding for new learning models and building ecosystems of leaders and practitioners from previously isolated worlds.

New York City now requires every program in its Out-of-School Time system to include STEM or literacy learning. Thanks to the Noyce Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation—which helps statewide after-school networks build their STEM capacity—TASC worked with the New York State Afterschool Network to establish science training academies for after-school educators all across the state, including small towns and rural communities.

In New York’s Southern Tier, home of one of the state’s most vibrant regional after-school networks encompassing Corning and Elmira, state network leads have trained more than 30 regional after-school leaders on high quality STEM curricula. Leaders have passed those lessons along to the front-line community educators who work directly with kids. Local kids can have more fun with STEM at the Corning Museum of Glass, supported by Corning Incorporated. The synergy is impressive.

Through the Collaborative for Building After-School Systems, we’ve taken the FUSE approach to other states and cities, including Providence. For our colleagues in the Providence After School Alliance (PASA), science learning helped them achieve a goal they had long pursued. Students at Rhode Island College partnered with PASA educators to lead students in summer and after-school science. College students now partner with PASA in other subject areas.

As corporations and government invest heavily in building the skilled workforce of the future, the kid-centered, hands-on STEM movement has taken hold everywhere from Maker Faires to new schools built around game design curriculum.

To integrate more science discovery into longer school days and summers, out-of-school time systems are building new partnerships with museums, parks, colleges and other institutions. We still have far to go to reverse fear of science and equalize kids’ opportunities. But without foundations taking the lead by investing in STEM learning outside traditional school hours, the arc of change would be much slower.

Bringing partners together around STEM is not just a way to grow more science-literate Americans. It’s a great way to build more high-quality expanded learning systems too.