STEM education: in-school and out-of-school working together

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Paul Ainslie and Bob Abrams have followed similar career paths. Both have had lengthy careers in the corporate sector – Ainslie at automotive-supplier Delphi and Abrams at engine-maker Cummins and other small businesses.

But that’s not all they have in common. Both now work for nonprofit organizations and each is charged with advancing science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM, for short. Abrams is Indiana’s Afterschool Network STEM coordinator and Ainslie is the managing director of I-STEM based at Purdue University.

Abrams and Ainslie are working together, helping to marry in-school and out-of-school STEM efforts. Both see limitless opportunities to expand and build upon in-school learning through flexible and engaging out-of-school programming and by connecting programs to community resources.

“The extension is to connect in-school and out-of-school STEM teachers, so that there is consistency. If they’re going to do a lesson in physical science in the STEM science class, there may be an after-school program that would align to that,” said Ainslie.

In the 21st century, many have rallied around STEM education, citing students’ need for greater scientific and technological literacy to function in today’s society and economy. Corporate leaders have worried about where the next generation of workers will come from with too few students seeing these disciplines as springboards for their careers.

Abrams and Ainslie say there is plenty of is exemplary STEM curriculum, but typically, the after-school approach has been more ad hoc, and they want to change that.

“So we’re doing that connecting by saying, ‘Let’s extend the learning on this science STEM topic to the after-school space,’” said Ainslie.

“What we’re trying to do is say to schools and after-school programs, ‘OK, this is working well in school, what can you do with the out-of-school program?” said Abrams.

What the duo has found in their travels around the state are willing communities, but what’s lacking are models. Their strategy is simple: Find programs doing that and share them as demonstration sites.

So far they have identified two programs, although they believe there are more out there.

Warren Township and Columbus each have an elementary school that has repurposed a computer lab as a STEM lab, and has a dedicated STEM resource person. Much like art, music and physical education, students rotate throughout the school day. Both see the potential of repurposing the STEM labs for after-school programming and connecting the in-school and out-of-school teachers.

“In Warren, the school is Liberty Park Elementary. It’s a Project Lead the Way-based STEM center and PLW did the training for that instructor. That’s the model. If you go with a strong curriculum, then training is part of it, too. And that’s got to be a key thing,” said Ainslie.

In the Columbus school district, according to Abrams, there is one school right now with plans to expand to others. The school uses a California-based program called Iridescent, which is an initiative that incorporates the cooperation of scientists and engineering experts as mentors.

“So Cummins in Columbus sends people in to lead particular exercises, but there is a dedicated teacher in that school who has gone through the training and leads that program,” he said.

Corporations are interested in supporting these types of efforts.

Ainslie has been working with Eli Lilly and Company and its Science Coaches program, which has 85 professionals, working in classrooms, primarily K-8. He said there is interest from Rolls Royce, Roche and Cummins, too. It’s an opportunity to get STEM professionals into the classroom to provide expertise without an impact on school budgets.

“There are a number of corporate partners that are interested in helping out, but they see the recent landscape being random acts of STEM. They’re good individual activities, but sustainability is questionable. So if we can demonstrate a sustainable, self-generating structure that works, I think we have something that people will invest in,” said Abrams.

Both Abrams and Ainslie provide professional development for educators. While schools already have academic standards, the Indiana Afterschool Network has developed specialty standards in multiple areas, including STEM. Indiana’s 38 standards serve as a framework for after-school programs. An online strengths-based self-assessment tool, it helps K-12 after-school programs rate their performances.

“Indiana has actually been recognized as a leader in out-of-school standards, including the STEM standards. Indiana was the first to focus on specific topics, and the STEM standards have become sort of the standard for the country,” said Ainslie.

What both acknowledged, however, is that there is a lot of variability in the focus on STEM and the quality of the STEM programs.

Since 2013, the Indiana Afterschool Network (IAN) has been collecting data through self-reporting. In its online mapping database, 992 programs are now registered, and of those, 44 percent offered STEM programming. IAN estimates that the current database represents about a third of the programs statewide.

While both provide professional development, Abrams said after-school is challenging for multiple reasons, specifically staffing.

“It doesn’t pay much, there is high turnover, and it doesn’t have an accreditation process. So finding people who are interested, motivated, skillful and being able to retain them is a real challenge,” he said.

“It gets into how well-prepared are the educators who are running the STEM programs. Are they just doing ‘gee-whiz’ activities that they learned on YouTube or are they actually talking about learning, and checking for student understanding?” said Ainslie.

Having the materials is good, but educators need to be prepared to assess learning and still make it fun. It’s the difference between having just an experience and having a quality STEM experience. Both want students both in- and out-of-school programs to have full discussions about their STEM experiences, which includes explaining what they observed, discussing what they learned and how they might do it differently.

“That sort of full discussion that we try to encourage educators and teachers to have doesn’t always happen in after-school. Sometimes it’s making a volcano, ‘Wasn’t that cool? What do we do tomorrow?’ It’s not the complete quality science experience that we want kids to have,” said Ainslie.

Both realize, too, that time spent in after-school programs is short. Programs must make time for snacks, homework and physical activity.

And the number of Hoosiers enrolled in after-school is only 11 percent with the majority on the elementary school level.

So they have a plan.

Warren Township school district educators have been providing feedback and believe it is better to have focused, time-limited activities, like a space camp for three weeks.

“We feel if there are focused short-period activities, like a weeklong Makerspace programming and it’s publicized, it may introduce more families to after-school opportunities that they aren’t aware of,” said Abrams. “Makerspace staff will come to the site and parents can make sure their kids are there.

“If you schedule STEM every day from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., half the people are gone by 4:45, except for a couple who stay until 6 p.m.,” said Abrams.

There are also programs such as IndianaFirst robotics, STEM Scouts and coding activities that are gaining momentum because they’re viewed more like camps.

For someone thinking about starting an after-school STEM program, Abrams and Ainslie have some advice. Find resources partners, schools and business that want to be partners. Define the skills and curriculum and how you will train teachers. Recognize what you’ve got to start with, what can you build on, so you don’t have to start from scratch. Find people who are interested, motivated and skillful.

“It’s a three-legged stool. I mean, it’s in-school, out-of-school and community partnerships,” said Ainslie.

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