Out-of-School Time Drawing Girls Into STEM

  • January 18, 2012

By Nora Fleming

OAKLAND -- A group of high school girls listen eagerly for their mission: Use the tools on hand to design a self-propelled boat that can cross water with 50 passengers on board. The passengers: pennies. The tools: pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and balloons. The water: an inflatable kiddie pool.

It’s another engineering “design challenge” at Techbridge, an after-school program for girls that encourages interest in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—subjects. Close to 30 girls are here this day at Arroyo High School, one of 21 Techbridge sites in California’s Bay Area that serve more than 600 elementary and secondary girls in total, close to 90 percent of them minority students.

While Techbridge still operates a number of after-school programs like Arroyo’s, its other related STEM initiatives, scaled by large national funders like the National Science Foundation, Google, and the Noyce Foundation have enabled the organization to reach more than 10,000 girls in the out-of-school-time space to date.

Those efforts coincide with the national momentum to teach STEM curricula outside traditional school walls, targeting minority, underprivileged, and female students not well represented in the STEM professions. Such environments could be a catalyst, some believe, that shifts students’ attitudes about STEM through innovative teaching methods not bound by the protocol of the school day.

According to Techbridge Executive Director Linda Kekelis, whether or not a student chooses to pursue a stem has more to do with conditioning than predisposition. With the right curriculum and right environment, she said, it’s possible to change a student’s mind.

“Girls and boys, it’s not that they are so different. Their experiences, however, can be very different, which leads to different interests and career trajectories,” she said. “Techbridge is providing the expectations and the experiences to level the playing field for girls, particularly in STEM.”

Limited Progress

More than a decade ago, the scarcity of women and minorities in STEM fields inspired the creation of Techbridge, which began as a small after-school program in the Bay Area supported by an NSF grant.

While the organization’s initial goals have remained the same, the statistics nationally haven’t changed much, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report released last year. Women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, says the report, even though they make up about half the nation’s workforce. The numbers of minorities and those from underprivileged backgrounds are similarly low.

But now, more heads are turning toward using out-of-school experiences as a means to up the numbers.

Last year was deemed the “Year of Science in Afterschool,” an initiative to promote out of school STEM efforts spearheaded by Noyce Foundation in partnership with other out-of-school-time advocacy organizations. (Education Week has been a recipient of Noyce funding.) Leaders in the out-of-school and expanded-learning arenas have also actively promoted the incorporation of STEM into the curriculum for their programs and for the schools they work with. And the U.S. Department of Education is looking into providing technical assistance for STEM professional development through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which finances some 9,000 after-school sites nationwide.

The California STEM Learning Network, a new outgrowth from a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative, seeks to improve the quality of the state’s STEM education and encourage more students, particularly the underserved, to pursue STEM careers through after-school and out-of-school programs. (The Gates Foundation also provides support for coverage of business and innovation in Education Week.)

Those programs are a perfect opportunity to provide engaging learning opportunities for underprivileged students that traditional classroom environments cannot, said Chris Roe, the chief executive officer of the state STEM network. Additionally, given that the state funds 4,000 of these after-school programs, the initiative’s efforts can be implemented at minimal cost, he added.

The state network hopes to reach 1 million children and will work with more than 1,000 programs this year. A national STEM network is also in the works.

“We know from the research that student engagement and making STEM relevant to students is critical,” Mr. Roe said. “Today, there is a large disjunction for students who don’t see a lot of relevance in what they are learning in the school day and their lives. By exposing students to STEM in out-of-school time, they are learning, for example, how engineering can be exciting.”

Techbridge has also sought to stimulate student excitement, especially for students who were turned off or misinformed about STEM. To design its curriculum, Techbridge asked girls, as well as teachers and parents, what would appeal to them. They then took their core ideas—like taking things apart and wondering how they work or understanding how STEM could “make the world a better place”—and incorporated them into lessons.

Role models, student leadership, and teamwork are also critical, Techbridge has found, to encourage girls. Program participants meet female professionals who work in STEM fields and take field trips to see them in action at companies like Apple, Facebook, or eBay.

While Techbridge’s target population and goals may be specific, some of its central ideas can be replicated in other, more general after-school programs, said Carol Tang, the director of the Coalition for Science After School, a national organization based at the University of California, Berkeley. Out-of-school-time programs need not become solely STEM-targeted, she added, but could infuse high-quality STEM curriculum into the core components of their existing program at a low cost.

“Because there is such a great diversity of after-school programs, we need to identify a diversity of successful examples so that the majority of after-school programs can find models to fit their own audiences and infrastructure,” Ms. Tang said.

Techbridge has shown components of its program can be used elsewhere. Parts of the curriculum are now taught in more than 100 other after-school programs and its STEM “program in a box” for Girl Scout troops is used by councils around the country that serve 4,000 girls.

Beefing Up Teaching

Part of promoting student interest in STEM and delivering high-quality programs could be linked to the instruction itself.

A 2009 report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York found that math and science education needs to be transformed, primarily through school redesign, with better use of time and more effective teachers.

Now, aspiring teachers and undergraduates from California State University, East Bay, are teaching STEM in middle school after-school programs, including Techbridge sites, and a larger initiative, the California Teacher Pathway, is on 10 California State University campuses, and includes teaching STEM in after-school programs at a number of the sites.

The goal is for preservice teachers not only to gain confidence teaching through the after-school setting, but also to become familiar with hands-on teaching methods that are characteristic of high-quality after-school programs and conducive to learning STEM, said Joan Bissell, the director of teacher education and public school programs for the CSU chancellor’s office. The teacher-candidates will also get a better “appreciation” for the children they are working with, the majority of whom are underprivileged, she said.

“After-school programs tend to very significantly deepen the learning opportunities children and teacher-candidates have,” said Ms. Bissell, who serves as the university lead on the project. “The experience can be transformational for the teacher-in-training, as, in essence, they learn the craft of teaching in environments rich with opportunities for children’s inquiry and projects that enable the candidates to observe the different ways a child can learn.”

Ice Cream and Science

The different ways of learning found in out-of-school programs like Techbridge’s can seem, on the surface, to be simple, but they are much more strategic. At Lincoln Elementary in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood, for one, students are unaware they’re still learning.

The final bell sends many students flooding through halls, eager to head home to start a week’s worth of vacation. But in Mr. Fong’s 5th grade classroom, it’s far from empty and silent.

About 25 5th grade girls shake plastic bags full of sugar, cream, milk, and vanilla extract inside larger bags filled with ice cubes and rock salt. Girls knead and pummel their bags into their desks and bounce up and down with bags in hand, impatiently waiting for extra cold ice to freeze the liquids into solids and create ice cream.

In the quest for the creamiest and best-tasting vanilla ice cream, groups of four decide what ratios to use of milk and cream to add up to one cup of liquid. When they enjoy the treat later on, they’ll learn the science behind why the salt and ice produce the dessert.

It’s the environment found at Lincoln this day, all girls, working collaboratively in hands-on, “fun” educational activities, that makes the Techbridge program so effective, according to some. At the least, the environment improves girls’ self-confidence and esteem, instructors say, but for others, it builds a real passion for STEM, which has inspired a number to pursue STEM majors and careers, according to Techbridge research.

David Drew, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, outside Los Angeles, says it will be challenging to change the statistics and push more underrepresented populations into STEM careers, but it’s possible. It starts with a shift in attitudes, he said, by students, parents, teachers, and leaders.

“There is a vast amount of untapped, wasted talent in this country: Too few girls, too few students of color, and too few students from poverty are going into STEM,” said Mr. Drew, who has written extensively on STEM education. “Things will change only when we realize that students in these groups have just as much intelligence and aptitude as any other group.”

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