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Billionaire Inventor Invests in After-School STEM Programs

After-school programs in Chicago are receiving funding from billionaire-inventor James Dyson to run engineering and technology courses at their sites this fall, as reported by the Chicago Tribune.

Dyson, who developed a well-known line of vacuum cleaners and other appliances, has pledged a half-million dollars for the course at 20 after-school programs that will teach kids how to design their own engineering projects and encourage interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. If successful, Dyson said the program will likely be replicated at other after-school programs in large, urban districts around the country, particularly those with high percentages of high-need students.

Incorporation of STEM in out-of-school-time programs has become a hot topic in the field. In fact, the Afterschool Alliance, the National Afterschool Association, and the National Summer Learning Association have teamed up this year with foundational support to make 2011 the Year of Science in Afterschool. Their efforts include increasing awareness of the need for STEM in after-school programs, showing how to effectively incorporate STEM curricula at program sites, and training instructional staff on how to peak students' interest in the subjects while covering fundamental material that aligns with the school day.

According to the Alliance, the regular school day does not provide enough time to build proficiency in STEM subjects, which it calls a requirement for 80 percent of future careers. Less than half of U.S. high school students are prepared for college math and science classes upon high school graduation, and only a third will graduate from college with degrees in those subjects, the group says. Due to concerns that U.S. students are falling behind their international peers in math and science achievement, more and more schools and OST programs are looking for how to develop interesting STEM programming, as studies have shown that early interest in these subjects is a good indicator of who will choose careers in these fields later on.

Research has also shown that not only are many young people unprepared in STEM subjects to meet the requirements of today's job market, but there are disproportionate numbers of men to women entering STEM professions, weighted heavily towards men, as shown in a research from the National Science Foundation. Many new STEM programs, particularly in out-of-school-time settings, are attempting to encourage girls to develop interests in these areas, such as a daylong seminar attended by 200 high school and middle school girls profiled yesterday in the Philadelphia Intelligencer. The grant-funded program featured classes on forensic science, computer game design, and regenerative medicine, taught by professionals in the respective fields.

Many OST/after-school programs are able to engage students in STEM activities in innovative ways that aren't possible during the regular school day. Education Week profiled some of the latest and greatest science and related programs that go on outside the regular school day in a special report, Science Learning Outside the Classroom, published last month.

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