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Tips for Great STEM Afterschool

From preparing young people with the 21st-century skills they—and in turn, America—will need for the careers of tomorrow, to the unique talents and environment that afterschool provides for fun hands-on STEM enrichment that inspires excitement along with understanding, the case for STEM activities Afterschool is well documented and researched.

STEM is also shown to be highly valued by parents and can make an afterschool program more attractive to parents looking for increased STEM enrichment opportunities for their young people.

Afterschool leaders who understand the importance of STEM and want to provide a great STEM program need to commit to moving beyond offering infrequent standalone activities. Programs that are serious about STEM should take the time to plan a cohesive STEM program that enables staff to consistently provide activities that inspire participation while developing the skills that our young people will need for their futures.

STEM Afterschool: Three Universal Barriers to Entry

How do you go from wanting a great STEM program to having one? You must first address the three universal barriers all afterschool programs face when attempting to improve their STEM programs:

  • Lack of awareness of age-appropriate science curriculum and resources.
  • Limited funds for materials and equipment.
  • Little to no science—or science teaching—staff expertise.

These barriers seem daunting, but with forethought and planning can quickly be overcome.

  • The recent focus on STEM enrichment has provided many excellent curricula designed for afterschool. (Some of the main resources are listed under Curriculum.)
  • It is a fallacy that you need expensive science equipment to teach STEM. In fact, use of everyday materials is less intimidating and helps demonstrate to your young people that STEM is a natural part of their everyday lives. Many great STEM programs make use of supplies you already have on hand or can easily purchase from local grocery or craft stores.
  • The lack of science background among your program staff can actually be an advantage. They can be great role models as co-learners with their young people—sharing in the fun and excitement as the group learns together.

By understanding and removing the traditional barriers to implementing STEM, the key question becomes: What does a great STEM Afterschool program look like, and how do we get started?

Great STEM Afterschool

First and foremost, you need a plan.

STEM success takes forethought and planning. Gather information. Bring together key stakeholders for your STEM program. Take some time to discuss what a good STEM program looks like for your situation. Discuss the resources and budget you will need to achieve success.

Then, with all the practicalities and circumstances of your program on the table, decide on:

1. Curriculum

This is by far the most important aspect of achieving STEM success. All programs are unique and you—like many programs before you—may be tempted to create your own curriculum.

Please do not.

There is no reason to spend precious resources reinventing the wheel. There are many resources for STEM programs and an increasing number are designed specifically for afterschool. By choosing an existing tried-and-tested curriculum, you can devote your time and resources to ensuring its implementation and success. The curriculum you select should suit your afterschool program and the interests of your staff and young people.

Look for curriculum that has:

  • Thematically connected stand-alone activities.
  • Hands-on and inquiry-based activities.
  • Student-centered activities that nurture interest and curiosity.
  • Specific learning goals.
  • Diversified subject matter.
  • Activities that fit your educators' comfort zones.
  • Activities that fit your budget.
  • Been afterschool tested.
  • Equitable activities and outcomes for young people of all socioeconomic statuses, genders and ethnicities.
  • Safety built in.

Online Curriculum Resources for Afterschool STEM

Science Afterschool
The Science and Math Informal Learning Educators
Try Science
Afterschool Alliance

2. Equipment

Afterschool STEM enrichment is most effective when it is fun and motivational. One way to ensure this is to focus on providing a program that is hands-on.

Supplies do not need to be expensive or specialized. Many great STEM activities make use of arts and crafts materials you already have in your program. Decide on a budget and formulate a plan to supply your staff with the materials they will need. One of the main reasons STEM programs pitter out or are frustrating for staff is the difficulty in maintaining the flow of supplies.

3. Staff Development

The last inch in any education program is the educator. Great equipment and curriculum will amount to nothing without a confident and motivated staff.

STEM can often be intimidating to afterschool staff who may not have had a lot of positive experience with science themselves. Budget time to provide your staff with STEM enrichment fundamentals and designate a curriculum expert who can be a resource for your staff, so they can feel confident and at ease. When exploring STEM with your young people, it is perfectly fine for the staff to discover what happens along with the young people. Everyone learning together provides the perfect environment for collaborative and self-esteem building experiences. In STEM, enrichment providing positive encounters and developing STEM skills is more important than getting bogged down in complex content.

4. Evaluation

It is important to decide what you want your STEM program to accomplish. What parameters would define success? Without the pressure to show academic metrics, enrichment programs can often be implemented with little understanding of their effectiveness and areas that might need improving.

Set a schedule for assessment and use surveys/self-evaluation to assess how your STEM program has affected these areas:

  • Ease of implementation
  • Staff competence confidence and motivation
  • Staff interest in STEM
  • Student interest, engagement and knowledge of STEM processes and concepts
  • Student interest in additional STEM learning opportunities and careers
  • Enrollment
  • Parent satisfaction
  • Intensity, duration and quality of STEM instruction

STEM is an important endeavor that continues to gain traction every year in education. Parents continue to place STEM enrichment higher and higher on program evaluations. As afterschool programs are an important part of the increasing enthusiasm and motivation for STEM education, it has become increasingly important to not just offer thematic standalone STEM activities but to develop a cohesive STEM curriculum that benefits your young people and your program by providing concrete STEM skills.

Written by Andy the Science Wiz, NAA STEM Specialist Andy Allan.

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