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Engagement, Creativity and Inspiration Found in New Afterschool STEM Programs.

Engagement, Creativity and Inspiration Found in New Afterschool STEM Programs.

Team Cupcake, Team Imaginators, Team Spaced Out, and Thinkers of Tomorrow. These are some of the hard-working student teams that can say that they have tackled challenges similar to those faced by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists and engineers.

As part of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program, middle school students throughout the country have the opportunity to solve engineering design challenges based on NASA’s Summer of Innovation program. Funded by the US Department of Education, states can apply to participate in this program, which supports local and community-based organizations in partnership with NASA, to bring authentic blended learning experiences to students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The 21st CCLC program is the nation’s largest out-of-school program, serving more than 1.5 million students in some of the nation’s highest-need communities.

Begun in 2013, this collaboration has expanded from 20 sites in its first year, to 80 sites in California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Participating students are presented with NASA-inspired challenges, such as simulating a parachute drop onto the surface of Mars, designing a radiation protection system for astronauts and flight hardware, and developing a recreational activity for astronauts to perform in the microgravity environment aboard the International Space Station. NASA staff provides face-to-face and ongoing online professional development to the 21st CCLC staff, and students have several opportunities to interact directly with NASA scientists and engineers as they learn firsthand about engineering design, practices and careers.

This year, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) have begun pilot programs in another 36 sites to leverage their unique STEM-learning resources and to provide additional programs such as STEM-rich making, environmental monitoring and citizen science. In partnership with the Bureau of Indian Education, NPS is engaging students across Arizona, Idaho, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Washington. Students learn about natural resources in their regions and delve into hands-on activities in fields such as biology and ecology. Working with Hands on the Land—a national network of field classrooms and agency resources connecting students, teachers, families, and volunteers with public lands and waterways—NPS is also providing subject-matter experts to provide professional development to 21st CCLC students and staff.

Aided by IMLS, students in California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas are being introduced to STEM-rich making and tinkering. It taps into the considerable enthusiasm for making as a powerful way to get young people engaged in STEM learning. This place-based collaboration links local science centers with 21st CCLC afterschool sites. Students will benefit from a partnership with the Exploratorium, a San Francisco-based institution with a history of innovation in maker education. Youth participants will have the opportunity to work directly with maker-focused subject matter experts to aide them in their work and to learn about careers in the field.

There is considerable evidence that out-of-school time programming is critical to engaging all students in STEM, a field where the number of unfilled jobs continues to grow. Providing inspiration and linkages to real-world problems are recognized as key factors to motivating student interest in STEM, particularly for young girls and minorities, who have the lowest levels of participation in the STEM fields. With studies showing that demand for STEM jobs will outpace supply globally for the next 20 years, the 21st CCLC program is an important tool to ensure more students are exposed to and prepared for the many high-skilled, high-paying jobs of the future.

Ellen Lettvin is a Robert Noyce Senior Fellow in Informal STEM Learning in the Office Innovation and Improvement.