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After-school STEM programs inspire kids to keep learning

At an after-school STEM club in Rhode Island, students are working on an engineering challenge -- because they want to be. The low-stakes, fun environment offers time for exploration when resources or hands-on activities may be in short supply during school hours, and can help sustain interest as classes get harder. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, new efforts to inspire kids to learn math and science by engaging in after-school programs.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports for our weekly series Making the Grade.

  • Woman:

    Your timer, your tape.

  • Lisa Stark:

    These fourth and fifth graders at Ella Risk Elementary in Central Falls, Rhode Island, are about to embark on an engineering adventure.

  • Student:

    Yes, let’s move out this thing.

  • Student:

    Someone, tape this, so the marble won’t fall off.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Their job is to construct a track, then let loose a marble. Here’s the tricky part.

  • Arturo Lugo:

    So, we put the marble, and we have to make it into the goal in exactly one minute.

  • Lisa Stark:

    How hard is that?

  • Arturo Lugo:

    Very hard.

  • Woman:

    You guys are pretty good.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Teacher Sheryl Wilson says this feels like a fun game, but it’s really much more.

  • Sheryl Wilson:

    The lesson scientifically was about friction, potential, kinetic energy, slope, how are you going to make it last 60 seconds? So, it’s a continuation of redesign, redesign, redesign, and what works and what doesn’t.

  • Student:

    Oh, it’s too high.

  • Student:

    The tape is too slippery.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The students are here because they want to be. They can sign up for this free STEM club that meets weekly after school.

    After-school programs like this allow students to learn in a low-stakes environment. There are no tests. There is time for exploration, and failure is celebrated. You make a mistake, you figure out what you did wrong, you try a different approach.

    This program, called SMILE, is one of hundreds of different after-school science, technology, engineering and math, STEM, programs around the country. Here, the idea isn’t to mirror the school curriculum, but to complement it.

  • Elizabeth Abreu:

    I knew that SMILE was science, so I wanted more time with science.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Why did you want more time with science?

  • Elizabeth Abreu:

    Because I don’t get that much science in my class, and because I like science.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Nationwide, only about half of fourth graders get hands-on science activities at least once a week. By eighth grade, the vast majority of students have access to science labs, but only about 40 percent have sufficient lab supplies.

    It’s why after-school opportunities have taken on added importance.

  • Angleyn Torres:

    It’s fun. We got to do a lot of building.

  • Lisa Stark:

    STEM advocates say classes like this one, that encourage teamwork and analytical thinking, are critical in our increasingly technological world.

    Claus von Zastrow runs a business-backed nonprofit that works to expand and improve STEM education.

  • Claus Von Zastrow:

    When we see the rate at which stem skills are increasing in importance in jobs across the country, we would like to see the same increase in student performance in STEM in our schools. And we’re not seeing that yet, and that’s very concerning.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Only a third of eighth graders are proficient in math and science, and, in 12th grade, about a quarter are. And measured against other countries, U.S. students lag behind; 14-year-olds in the U.S. rank 10th in math worldwide and 11th in science.

  • Claus Von Zastrow:

    It took us a long time to get to the point where we actually have really strong standards, for example, and curriculum in STEM, and one could argue, in many states, that curriculum hasn’t even been fully developed yet.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Von Zastrow says STEM skills are needed in a broad range of jobs, from computer programming to health care to manufacturing, and that there are not enough qualified workers to fill them.

    There is a debate about the size of this job skills gap, or whether it truly exists in most STEM fields. But government studies show STEM jobs are growing faster than other jobs, and do tend to offer higher salaries.

  • Woman:

    We do seat belt ourselves in, so think about how you might be able to mimic that.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Exposing students to STEM early has benefits, building interest and confidence in math and science.

  • Daniela Montoya:

    Science, I’m pretty interested in it. But math, man, I’m not good at math. We’re going to learn about math, and I feel like now I’m going to start getting math more and like enjoying it.

  • Carol Englander:

    The research shows, the earlier we interest kids in science and technology, the more likely they will follow through with it.

  • Lisa Stark:

    After-school STEM programs tend to be local. Carol Englander started SMILE in Rhode Island based on a program she saw in Oregon. Funded by corporate and foundation grants, it now serves over 500 students in the state, from fourth to 12th grade.

  • Woman:

    Everybody, show me your two sets of wheels, your two axles.

  • Lisa Stark: 

    The lesson for these middle schoolers in Pawtucket design a car, taking into account mass and momentum, and ensure it will protect the passenger, in this case a hard-boiled egg.

  • Woman:

    What do we see as one immediate concern?

  • Lisa Stark:

    It’s not hard to get kids enthusiastic about hands-on science and engineering.

  • Ja-sean Penate:

    I want to be an engineer when I grow up.

  • Lisa Stark:

    What do you want to do?

  • Ja-sean Penate:

    I want to create things.

  • Lisa Stark:

    But it is difficult to sustain that interest, especially as classes get more difficult.

  • Carol Englander:

    We work very hard at promoting a cohesive peer group where everyone knows it’s cool to be smart. They identify with science. They identify with STEM. And that carries them into high school to take the harder science and math courses.

  • Pedro Raposo:

    After, like, the first couple of sessions, I kind of just got hooked.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Pedro Raposo said his STEM group became like a family, all there on their own time, all eager to learn. He participated through high school.

  • Pedro Raposo:

    The SMILE program tried to hit on a lot of different subjects, so I was able to kind of like have a little taste of all these different fields. And then I think that’s when I kind of figured that I wanted to be an engineer.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Raposo has just graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in engineering, and is on the job hunt, the first in his immediate family to attend college.

    Low-income students, minorities and women are less likely to take STEM classes or pursue those jobs. Many after-school STEM programs aim to change that.

    Teacher Janelle Haire-

  • Janelle Haire:

    Right now, science is dominated by white men, and I don’t know if you noticed in our club, it’s not all white men, right? So, it’s really to show them too that you can be an engineer, regardless of your race or your gender or your age or your education or where you’re from.

  • Lisa Stark:

    To reinforce that message, STEM programs often get outside the classroom. SMILE goes to science competitions and the University of Rhode Island.

  • Pedro Raposo:

    Seeing all the students walk around, the students with their backpacks just going from building to building, I was really able to imagine myself there in four more years.

  • Woman:

    Mass has to do with weight.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Exposing students to STEM jobs and opportunities and surrounding them with equally enthusiastic students can boost interest in STEM. It takes a concerted effort, both in school and out.

    For Education Week and the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Stark in Central Falls, Rhode Island.

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