I recently had the opportunity to network with several new (to me) people and organizations working hard to provide significant opportunities for students around the country. The Inaugural Afterschool STEM Summit was hosted by the Noyce and C.S. Mott foundations and brought together more than 500 people from all 50 states to share their concerns, their successes, and, most importantly, their creativity, all squarely focused on what is sometimes called non-formal educational programs that focus on STEM.
I was there as a guest of the Arkansas Out of School Network, one of the 50 Statewide Out of School Networks (SANs), funded by the C.S. Mott Foundation, charged with identifying, supporting, and advocating for practices and policies that expand opportunities for students during the Out-of-School Time hours.
If you’ve been following the news, the research, the literature, or this blog, you are aware that STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is a critical area of education that our academic systems and institutions sometimes have a very hard time keeping up with. But STEM is a hot topic. The educational pendulum began to swing back towards more significant learning in these fields a few years ago because there is a massive disconnect between what students are studying and what the vocational needs are in business, industry, and government. The reality is that there are lots of jobs in STEM fields that are going unfilled because there are not people to fill them.
That lack of students seriously pursuing STEM learning threatens to hamper America’s innovative capacity. We’re the country that invented the internet, the personal computer, and so many of the technologies that permeate our everyday lives… but we’ve started to become primarily consumers of those technologies and seem content to let someone else do the “heavy lifting” of engineering and programming and developing the next generation of technologies and scientific breakthroughs.
If we’re going to put astronauts on Mars or eradicate cancer or just create the most immersive virtual world for collaboration or entertainment, we’re going to need people to do these amazing things. Real, normal people. For me, there is a great deal of satisfaction knowing that, for two decades, our EAST students have been setting these kinds of goals. And yet, that very pride points to the reason that I found myself in the nation’s capital at a summit that was focused on developing these skills and providing these opportunities OUTSIDE of the school day.
Though EAST officially started directly supporting afterschool projects and programming in 2000, local programs have been doing projects that take place after school hours and away from the classroom since its earliest days. It’s only natural. As students work to solve problems, their projects have to meet those problems where they are — and that often isn’t in second period. So much of the world does not adhere to an arbitrary bell schedule.
So for a long time EAST has been a bridge between the standard curricular world and the out-of-school real world, but it is only in the past three years that we’ve begun, as an Initiative, to stress partnerships with organizations that are dedicated to afterschool work. You may have read about our work with the Arkansas Innovation Hub, or perhaps the People Tree, or the Arkansas Discovery Network, or other organizations better established in the afterschool environment. We’re doing this because we know how powerful it is to have strong relationships with all sorts of organizations that want to help our students build their skills and passions.
Imagine a world where learning opportunities surround us from first light to the end of the day from the first day of school to the last day of summer. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Well, you don’t need to imagine it; it already exists. The internet alone guarantees that much, but many of our students are also taking advantage of other opportunities and seeing great benefits.
One of the points brought out at the Summit was that sometimes, more learning happens outside the classroom than in it (a point that EAST is squarely in agreement with). Why? I think it goes back to engagement. When students choose to take part in something, they are more likely to commit to the learning that goes on in the activity. If they see that it has real world outcomes or consequences, then the learning is even more powerful. The non-formal educational programs are built around students choosing to participate and choosing how they participate.
None of this makes formal education less important. To be honest, I think it makes formal education more important. Because the opportunity to study a subject in a structured way fills in the gaps of what experiential activities leave behind. It allows for a fuller understanding…and maybe, just maybe, a career path (or at least a lifelong love of something that you never appreciated until you were steeped in it).
In this, STEM is just like other learning. I think it’s a cart and horse thing. To really appreciate anything, you have to do it. You roll up your sleeves, stick your hands in, and get the squishy bits between your fingers. Neither science nor Shakespeare were meant to be pondered until you understand them; they’re meant to be experienced so you can begin to ponder them. Math means more when you’re using it to solve community problems, not the odd numbered problems in chapter five. To fully understand a subject, including STEM subjects — to think like an engineer or to become a technologist — you have to mix the structure with hands on opportunity.
What I learned at the Afterschool STEM Summit is that there are a whole lot of people who are committed to providing opportunities to spark curiosity, wonder, and the joy that is learning. They know we can’t leave it up to the schools to do it all. They have lots of strategies and ideas and programs that build on the structure students get between bells. They want to be part of the solution and help bring balance back to learning. They want to provide opportunities for all students to find their passion. In short, I learned that there are many more people who believe exactly what EAST believes. That makes me happy.
The EAST Initiative and the EAST model were both founded to provide students with opportunities that they weren’t getting anywhere else. The commitment of the hundreds of organizations that met at the Afterschool STEM Summit is the same. We all want to make sure that students are having the opportunity to have experiences that will build them and give them more choices in life, not fewer.
It was a great Summit, and, as I rode the plane home, I couldn’t help but think that the only thing better than meeting people as passionate as you are about something is meeting people as committed to that passion as you are.
Until next time, I’m Matt and that’s that!