When Inspiring a Passion for STEM Begins After School

Published: Jun 15, 2017

When Inspiring a Passion for STEM Begins After School

June 15, 2017
By Renee Morad, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

The U.S. recently implemented new measures to recruit women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In the Oval Office, President Donald Trump recently signed two new laws to support women in STEM.

The INSPIRE ACT, which stands for Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers Women Act, calls on NASA to create a plan to get more astronauts and scientists in front of girls in grades K through 12 and expand their knowledge and interest in aerospace. Another law, called Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act, authorizes the National Science Foundation to support entrepreneurial programs designed for women. During the ceremony, President Trump also mentioned that only one in four women with STEM-related degrees works in the field—which is clearly a fact that’s in need of change.

Meanwhile, as Congress makes moves to level the playing field for women in STEM, classrooms around the country are also enlisting new ways to encourage students—particularly girls—to explore interests in STEM. These efforts are also spilling over to after-school activities.

The ‘Curie-osity’ project’, spearheaded by the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education (GGSE) at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Girls Inc. of Greater Santa Barbara, is a pilot program engaging girls in grades four to six in research and inquiry-based activities with women scientist and engineers in the local community. The project was inspired by the work of physicist and scientist Marie Curie, who was awarded the Nobel Prize twice for her accomplishments in radioactivity.

In another example, an after-school STEM program for girls at Sequoia Middle School in Newbury Park, Calif. introduces girls to STEM careers by taking field trips to Jafra Cosmetics, BMW Designworks and an incubator for biotech startups called Ventura BioCenter. In these settings, they observe and get to know women in STEM careers.

Of course, many other STEM activities are created with all students in mind. The Northern Illinois University’s outreach program, for example, recently held a ‘Star Wars’ class on a Saturday, where girls and boys explored light sabers, robots and holograms. In Laurinburg, North Carolina, elementary and middle school students participate in an after-school program called Lego Robotics, in which students use simple engineering and computer programming to build and control robots.

However, educators emphasize the importance of getting young girls together, in particular, to inspire them to pursue STEM. “Women have experienced a long history of inequality and discrimination, reflected in the lack of acknowledgement of women who have contributed to technological and scientific progress over the past centuries and in the underrepresentation of women pursuing STEM studies and professions,” GGSE faculty member Diana Arya said in a statement. She said the ‘Curie-osity’ project helps young girls “develop skills needed for critically engaging with scientific issues.”

Indeed, after-school programs are helping to build interest in STEM in a big way. A recent study conducted by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and STEM Next evaluated the impact of more than 160 after-school STEM programs in grades 4 through 12 in 11 states. More than 70 percent of students across all states reported positive gains in areas of science interest, science identity, science career interest and career knowledge, and a category called 21st century skills, which includes qualities like perseverance and critical thinking.

The study also showed that 80 percent of students reported a positive gain in their science career knowledge. Furthermore, 78 percent said they experienced a positive change in their self-reported interest in science, and 73 percent reported an increase in “STEM identity,” which means they’re now confident that they can do well in science.

“After-school programs have significant potential to help young people across America prepare for success in school today and jobs tomorrow,” Ron Ottinger, director of STEM Next, said in a statement.

“There’s a powerful message here for employers nationwide concerned about the pipeline of qualified job candidates,” he added. “After-school STEM programs are inspiring and equipping young people to pursue careers they never imagined before —and helping them gain skills needed for virtually every job in the future.”

As lawmakers and educators explore new ways to plant a seed for STEM, perhaps one of the most impactful places to start is during organized, after-school activities.

Renee Morad is a frequent contributor to BioSpace. She has been published in the New York Times, Business Insider, OZY, NPR, Seeker, SmartMoney, TheStreet.com, Scientific American Worldview and Realtor.com, among others. She was previously a staff reporter for SmartMoney, the Wall Street Journal's personal finance magazine, and a homepage editor for Xfinity. Follow her on Twitter @reneemorad.

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