Every year a group of public high school students from all over Pittsburgh gathers at Winchester Thurston School for an afterschool course that teaches them how to program mobile apps. Some students might learn how to design a game. Others might learn how to create a painting program. And some might learn how to build a simple app to track their favorite sports team’s scores.
“The students have come up with some pretty wild ideas,” program head David Nassar said in a recent article. “It’s exciting to see their creativity take them in directions I wouldn’t have thought myself.”
It’s called the Mobile App Lab, and it’s part of a nationwide wave of innovative afterschool programs designed to capture students’ imaginations and interest in computer programming, engineering, and other STEM topics. A recent Afterschool Alliance brief points out that these much-needed programs are filling a gap in STEM education, especially when it comes to computers and engineering—fields that will make up nearly 80 percent of future STEM jobs.
By 2020 there will be nearly 1.5 million new computing jobs and 600,000 new engineering jobs, according to the brief, on computing and engineering in afterschool programs. That’s a lot of high-paying jobs. But while demand is rapidly increasing, not nearly enough college students are graduating with computer science or engineering degrees to fill these jobs. So what gives? Why the lack of interest?
One reason is many kids are not exposed to these subjects. According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “AP Computer Science is taught in just 10 percent of U.S. High Schools.” Engineering classes are fewer and farther between. In President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address, he urged schools to become better equipped to meet high-tech needs. “We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math—the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.”
While many schools across the country are working hard to engage kids in these subjects, it takes time and resources to make that happen. Afterschool programs can be more responsive and provide more immediate solutions to the challenge of providing kids the skills they need to get ready for these future jobs.
It’s not just a matter of training—equity is important too. Women and minorities are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields. “Computer science is actually more male-dominated today than it was a decade ago,” according to a recent New York Times article. And many minority students simply don’t have access to computer science and engineering classes.
Afterschool programs can reach a much more diverse population with fun, hands-on projects. One such program is Project GUTS—“Growing Up Thinking Scientifically,” an afterschool program in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A collaboration between Santa Fe Public Schools, MIT, and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, among others, the program serves 300-400 urban and rural middle-school students a year. Forty-one percent of participants are female, 58 percent identify as Hispanic/Latino, and 35 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Students create and test computer models that address real-world issues—like the population dynamics of an ecosystem, for example.
Unlike many school classes, these programs allow kids the freedom to explore, solve problems, and most importantly, to fail and keep trying. As a result, many become interested in computing and engineering, and some even discover it’s their lifelong passion. Some of the students who complete the seven-week Mobile App Lab go on to become mentors, both in the program and in their school communities. And that makes student interest go viral. “We really want to bring computer science education to the forefront of people’s minds in Pittsburgh and the larger area,” said Nassar.
By Sara Needham
Photo/ Jeremy Wilburn