STEM Gains Traction in After-School Programs

With the current emphasis on ensuring students receive adequate STEM opportunities, schools and their community partners are leveraging after-school programs to meet this need.

by / December 12, 2017 0

Many schools are recognizing the importance of providing their students with opportunities for greater technology instruction – especially in supporting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs with an emphasis on coding. But faced with the dilemma of fitting “one more thing” into the school day, some schools are getting creative and using after-school programs to help address their students’ STEM needs and interests.

It’s estimated that by 2020 there will be 1 million more unfilled computer science jobs in the U.S. than qualified applicants. But aside from preparing students to move towards these good paying jobs, STEM classes – and coding in particular – are also viewed by many as a means to help students demystify the world of apps and software, to become creators instead of just consumers, and as a means for students to acquire the computational thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for all professional careers.

For these reasons, the importance of students learning to code has become a high-profile topic supported by political, business and educational leaders of all stripes. But addressing this need has presented schools with some significant challenges:

•    At the elementary school level, finding the time in the school day, as well as finding teachers qualified to teach tech classes, are major hurdles.
•    At the secondary level, more than 34 states now allow computer science classes to be taken for math or science graduation credit. But finding qualified computer science teachers remains a challenge. Some individuals with strong tech backgrounds want to become teachers, instead of taking more lucrative opportunities in private-sector jobs. But there are not nearly enough of these altruistic folks to address schools’ hiring needs. And that is among the reasons why, according to Code.org, only 40 percent of U.S. schools currently offer computer science courses.

So, though not a panacea, after-school tech programs are viewed by many schools as a good way to begin addressing these challenges and introduce STEM and coding opportunities to their students. And the less time-constrained, more relaxed nature of students’ after-school hours can also be an asset for such programs. And further, since they’re offered outside of the school day, these programs don’t need to be staffed by certified teachers. Instead, other qualified individuals – perhaps folks studying computer science or already working in the field– can be leveraged to share their skills.

At the secondary level, after-school sports and clubs have a well-established foothold, so adding a STEM or robotics club isn’t a huge stretch. And a teacher already on staff may be willing to run the program, especially if supported by technically-skilled members of the community. School robotics teams are becoming common in many areas with tournaments pitting school teams against one another in high-tech competitions.

And at the elementary level, rather than building and running STEM or coding programs themselves, many schools are collaborating with outside partners to operate and staff schools’ on-site classes. When I worked in Denver Public Schools, we had one such local partner – Open World Learning (OWL) – and they offered a valuable service to many of our elementary schools, and have now expanded to include middle schools. Like OWL, many of these after-school offerings use Scratch, a clever and free coding program developed by the MIT Media Lab for 8-16 year olds. With Scratch, students create games, stories and animations, and if they wish, participate in an active online community to share and collaborate with others.  

The Boys & Girls Club are also rising to the challenge, supported by a partnership with Microsoft to offer after-school tech programs at their centers. Recognizing the needs of more rural communities, Google has recently joined with 4-H to help support coding programs. And Google is also now sponsoring a Libraries Ready to Code program with the American Library Association to offer young people coding classes through their local public libraries.   

Given all of the demands and challenges our schools currently face, finding ways outside of the school day for students to learn coding will continue to require wide-ranging support from diverse community partners. As will ensuring that all students – girls, students of color, and the under-served in urban and rural communities – are provided these opportunities.   

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.