Issues in Afterschool Science

April 30, 2012

All the attention afterschool science is getting right now is leading to some heavy expectations and heady promises. So, lets be very careful what afterschool science promises to deliver – especially the "science."

American kids, and especially African Americans, Latinos, women and low income kids from all populations, just aren't getting into science these days, and alarm bells are ringing at the highest levels. We hear concern about our scores on international tests and about shortages of workers for the high tech 21st Century economy and about the continued low representation of minority and low-income populations in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) industries. And the schools don't seem to be able to make a dent in the problem: science in school is apparently too boring or too alien for all but the most highly motivated and well supported students.

Against this background, afterschool science programs have been experimenting with novel ways to make science compelling and real for students who didn’t previously believe there was anything in it for them. Kids who were either intimidated by science or who had never imagined science in their lives are becoming engaged and interested in science careers and in how science is done – the problem solving, critical thinking, experimentation with controls, problem solving, testing ideas and yes the sheer fun and play of it! At its best, afterschool science - relaxed, informal, hands-on, and project-based – is getting new cohorts of kids hooked on science. And politicians and the captains of industry are taking note – calling for our help in recruiting tens of thousands of new STEM graduates for the new STEM economy. The hope is that afterschool science can move the economic needle and close the achievement and wealth gaps at the same time.

And there is reason for that hope. Good afterschool programs are having profoundly positive impacts on kids who are failing to thrive in school. Regular attendance at a well-run afterschool program has been shown to improve test scores in school – even when academic learning is not a focus of the afterschool program! And this is hardly a mystery. "Well-run" programs bring kids into contact with adults who know them and care about them. A well-run program provides structure that includes interesting and empowering challenges as well as opportunities for expression and personal and interpersonal growth. A well-run program nurtures identity, interest, self-confidence, self-discipline and resilience – the very life skills that we all need as we face the many challenges of our lives. It is not surprising that kids who feel better about themselves – kids who have vision for their lives – bring more of their natural talents to school based learning.

And for the vast majority of American kids academic achievement is the only route to economic security and prosperity. Graduating from high school and college is virtually the only way to get to the well paying jobs in the STEM industries, or almost any other industry. Afterschool as a cultural institution preserves the wisdom that personal identity, character, interpersonal skills and vision are necessary co-ingredients – perhaps even precursors – of that success. Knowing who we are and where we want to go is virtually the only way to get there.

For reasons that are at the same time political, practical and ideological, the formal educational system is rarely able to deliver on the promise of educating the "whole human being." So, the afterschool domain actually serves at-risk kids best by not becoming like school and by not substituting academic learning goals for the youth development skills it has taken on so powerfully. We must not allow the promise of better funding and political support to seduce the field into abandoning or compromising its essential mission. But afterschool should add compelling and meaningful content to the mix of its programming, be it science, art, math, music, almost anything. If the afterschool domain can figure out how to present "academic" content in a way that inspires interest and enthusiasm for learning, and vision for the future without sacrificing its core mission or abandoning its proven approaches, then it truly will have the impacts that policy-makers, and all the rest of us, wish for the economy and for underserved kids.

So let's be clear: it is rarely knowing facts or vocabulary or even understanding concepts that builds interest in science and science careers. It’s identification with science and confidence in the ability to do science that plants the belief in a kid that she or he can actually be a "scientist". There's no escaping the need for accurate understanding of concepts and vocabulary along the way to qualifications and employment in science. But at the entry level – the place where we meet the millions of kids who have not even begun to imagine science in their lives – afterschool is the place for inspiration and mastery of the process of science not the concepts.

With the proper training and support thousands of afterschool science leaders in NPASS and other well designed afterschool science programs are offering their kids a wide array of interesting and meaningful science experiences that make them feel competent and alive. It’s rarely about getting the science "right" in the early stages. Rather it’s about seeing how interesting the questions can be and feeling the satisfaction of answering a few of them skillfully.

Asking afterschool to put aside what it does well is a set up for disappointment and failure.