The Impact of Afterschool STEM Programs

August 28, 2014
By Educator Innovator

As educator innovators, you’re likely aware that exciting and innovative STEM learning often happens in out-of-school spaces.

Within the afterschool field, STEM has been increasingly popular and today, many afterschool and summer programs include STEM as a standard part of their comprehensive programming. Afterschool providers recognize the importance of improved STEM education for their students and that hands-on, inquiry-driven STEM is in line with afterschool’s overall approach to education.

Science Action ClubFor those who work closely with youth, we are able to directly see the impact afterschool STEM programs have—we see youth engaged in and excited about STEM activities, asking questions, and wanting to learn more. As practitioners, we of course want to better understand how certain types of programming or strategies affect student outcomes.

However, funders, policy makers, and other stakeholders often want data that substantiates such claims and demonstrates positive changes in a variety of outcomes: interest and engagement in science, greater knowledge of STEM careers, election of school science classes, and, sometimes, improved test scores in science and math.

In a new paper, “Examining the Impact of Afterschool STEM programs (PDF),” from Educator Innovator partner Afterschool Alliance and the Program in Education, Afterschool, and Resiliency (PEAR) at Harvard University, we wanted to get a sense of what strong afterschool STEM programs can achieve. First, the report provides an overview of some of the recent research findings about the importance of afterschool and other out-of-school experiences for STEM learning. Then, it summarizes evaluation data from a selection of strong afterschool STEM programs and describe the types of substantive impacts these programs are having on participating youth. Several themes emerged:

  1. Afterschool STEM programs are successful in engaging and retaining large numbers of students from diverse populations.
  2. Young people in these programs express curiosity and interest in STEM subjects, in ways that extended that interest in school and out of school.
  3. As they participate, young people gain real skills and the ability to productively engage in STEM processes of investigation.
  4. Youth learn essential STEM-relevant life and career skills.
  5. Participants come to understand the value of STEM in contributing to society and solving global and local problems. They begin to see how STEM intimately connects to their everyday lives.
  6. Youth display an increased awareness of career options, as well as a nuanced understanding of those careers.
  7. Afterschool STEM programs can have an impact on academic performance.

Consistent findings across the programs discussed in this paper, and those seen in an earlier paper, give us confidence that we are seeing a real phenomenon: students participating in afterschool STEM programs have immediate and long-term gains on a number of STEM-related dimensions.

While the findings in this paper are not intended as a representative sample of the afterschool field as a whole, it does provide an understanding of what strong programs can achieve. The paper demonstrates that afterschool and summer STEM programs play a very important role in STEM education and must be considered a vital part of the K-12 STEM education ecosystem.

By Melissa Ballard, Research Associate at the Afterschool Alliance

For more, watch the webinar with the author of this post.