Analysis: Out-of-school STEM programs inspire, empower and engage children. What teachers can learn from them
Gemma Lenowitz and Britt Magneson | October 27, 2021
Even before the pandemic, it was common for teachers to grapple with the challenge of teaching students varying in mastery of academic skills, with as many as seven grade levels represented in one room. The pandemic has only widened that gap, particularly in math, with the most disadvantaged students experiencing the most difficulties.
A recent analysis by McKinsey found that students ended the year, on average, five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading. This gap is wider for historically disadvantaged students; children in majority Black schools have six months of unfinished math learning, and students in low-income schools have seven.
Closing these gaps is likely to involve more remediation and skill-based learning, including incorporating high-dosage tutoring into the school day. These efforts are vital to helping students achieve grade-level mastery, but they’re not enough.
Now more than ever, children need to be inspired, empowered and engaged inside the classroom. And they need access to experiences that help them discover their innate capacity to drive their own learning.
Unfortunately, today’s schools aren’t often designed to facilitate those environments. But out-of-school programs are. Out-of-school, whether that’s afterschool or summer, is often where children discover, explore and fail without repercussions, engaging in the joy of learning for learning’s sake.
This is especially true for science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, which ensure that all participants see themselves as capable problem finders and problem solvers.
Increased STEM interest and skills are often taken as signs of success for these kinds of programs, but the other skills children gain may be even more beneficial, specifically when it comes to social-emotional habits. These include improved communication, the ability to solve problems and work in groups, and the perseverance to stick with a difficult problem.
In a hands-on invention program, for example, children develop self-awareness as they explore their identity as inventors, makers and innovators; social awareness as they give feedback to one another about their inventions; responsible decision-making in selecting the appropriate materials for their prototypes; self-management as they craft and deliver timed pitches; and relationship skills as they team up and co-invent. This happens alongside building STEM-specific skills, each reinforcing the other. Most powerfully, each success gives students the thrill of victory, reigniting self-esteem as well as genuine love of learning.
One of the best ways to bring the lessons of out-of-school STEM into the classroom is to involve educators who are the gatekeepers of how things are taught during the school day. While the enrichment value of STEM programs for children is widely recognized, little attention has been paid to the value and opportunity that STEM programs provide for teachers — including those for whom STEM is not a primary focus.
When classroom teachers visit out-of-school programs, they see children in an environment where they are empowered to use their imaginations, safely take risks and build their tolerance for ambiguity and failure. This is a powerful observational opportunity, one that is critical for teachers to develop an open mind about what learning can look like and a pedagogical approach that raises expectations for all students, versus focusing on children’s deficits. As former teachers and school administrators, we have witnessed the transformative power of afterschool programs for students and teachers. One instructor we worked with, who was a librarian prior to the program, became a middle school STEM teacher because of her experience in out-of-school.
Facilitating and observing out-of-school STEM programs can provide teachers with professional development opportunities that help them build skills that will improve their ability to hook students’ interest and engage them in authentic problem solving, versus applying a prescribed method to arrive at a single answer. In a STEM program, failure is not taboo — it is a celebrated part of the process. The insights gleaned from a motor not working, a part breaking or inconsistent trial results provide valuable data that can move a child toward learning persistence and, eventually, experiencing success. What if in-school STEM (and other subject) classrooms looked more like that?
One reason STEM programs are so powerful for students, and can be powerful for educators, is that they are a petri dish for invention education — teaching how to bring an idea to life and out into the world. When teachers have a safe space where they can solve problems alongside students through open-ended challenges with no one right solution, they can develop their skills in not just the subject area, but in empowering children to believe their ideas have value and that they are capable of engaging in difficult work.
There’s lots of talk about the STEM pipeline and the need for quality training for a robust, diverse and equipped STEM workforce. But the primary goal for STEM programs is not to guide every participant into a STEM career. Rather, it is for every child to have access to the tools of STEM and to find meaningful ways to enhance their dreams, goals and possibilities in ways that only STEM can.
STEM programs are a prime way to build the next generation of resilient, creative, problem-solving, solution-finding, inspired and innovative students — and teachers. They empower students and teachers together to cultivate their confidence, skills and joy of learning. That’s why educators must do more to incorporate the lessons from out-of-school STEM into the classroom and ensure that access to high-quality out-of-school options like the National Inventors Hall of Fame education programs are available to all children — not only to those whose parents can afford extracurriculars.
Survey data last year showed that for every child in an afterschool program, three more were waiting to get in. Limiting the benefits of hands-on experiential STEM to out-of-school hurts students’ futures. This year more than ever, we must envision the school day as an opportunity to engage and inspire. Lessons from STEM programs provide the blueprint to do so meaningfully, and to get students on track — academically and social-emotionally.
Gemma Lenowitz is a program officer for Overdeck Family Foundation, which provides financial support to the National Inventors Hall of Fame and The 74. Britt Magneson is the vice president of new business development for the National Inventors Hall of Fame.