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Exploring the World in Out of School Time through STEM

It's summertime and school is out for many students. But learning continues. Here are some thoughts about STEM and out-of-school time from my colleague Alexis Menten and co-authors Anita Krishnamurthi from Afterschool Alliance, and Carol Tang from The Coalition for Science After School.

By Alexis Menten, Anita Krishnamurthi, and Carol Tang

"Whether it's improving our health or harnessing clean energy, protecting our security or succeeding in the global economy, our future depends on reaffirming America's role as the world's engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. And that leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today...." - President Obama

Sound familiar? The urgency with which policy, business, and education leaders talk about the need for increasing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) literacy and skills matches the urgency surrounding global competence. And for good reason.

STEM is a global enterprise and many global issues can only be addressed with STEM innovations. In our globally connected world, students will find it difficult to become successful scientists, technologists, engineers, or mathematicians without also being globally competent. They need to be able to understand how the world works, how systems interconnect across political and cultural boundaries, how to work with colleagues in other countries as part of the larger international STEM community, and how their own discoveries as well as those in other countries have global applications and implications.

Asia Society's Heather Singmaster posted previously on how high-performing nations and higher education institutions are highlighting the need for an international dimension to be added to STEM to ensure their students'—and their nations'—global competitiveness. In the same way that STEM and global competence go hand in hand towards professional success, educators should strive to unite the two for students' overall success in school and life.

Sometimes the most powerful learning opportunities for both STEM and global learning happen outside of school hours and classroom settings. Like global learning, STEM learning during the school day is necessary but not sufficient to achieve lifelong success in the 21st century. Out-of-school time (OST) programs, such as afterschool, before-school, and summer programs, are unique learning environments in which we can not only foster these types of knowledge and skills, but also blend STEM and global learning through experiential, hands-on learning activities for youth.

Both STEM and global learning activities bring many of the same opportunities that educators can leverage for success, such as:

The world as a context for learning

We all live on the same planet. It is easy to find global connections from your own backyard or community, and compare these familiar surroundings with those far away. Often the best STEM examples may come from outside the United States, where specific natural phenomena, diverse species, and different types of hypotheses and data can be found. Many famous scientists and discoveries have come from other parts of the world; this provides ample opportunity to incorporate global geography, history, and cultural context within STEM learning.

Disciplinary and interdisciplinary connections

OST provides opportunities to go beyond the textbook and traditional disciplinary boundaries. Similarly, while core disciplines such as science and math provide powerful lenses for students to investigate the world, global competence also requires that students apply knowledge and skills from multiple disciplines to the complex world around them. Understanding global issues such as environmental sustainability, energy resources, population growth, economic development, and public health can rarely be understood through one discipline alone. This type of interdisciplinary investigation of the world is ideally suited for the OST environment.

Relevance that leads to engagement

While some students are intrinsically interested in STEM subjects, many more students become engaged when they see them as tools for solving major problems in the world. Educators can use the frame of global learning not only to impart core content knowledge and skills, as described above, but also do it in a way that is meaningful and relevant for students. Both STEM and global education aim to provide youth with the ability to ask relevant and informed questions, to solve problems and create solutions, and envision themselves as part of a larger global community. This requires the capacities and dispositions to acquire and apply core STEM knowledge and skills to complex and novel problems or situations. This is precisely what the interconnected world of the 21st century demands.

Student-centered practices and adult co-learning

Both STEM education and global learning benefit from a process of inquiry and reflection that builds on the experiences and knowledge of both educators and youth to explore the world together in a co-learning model. By focusing on students' interests, passions, and needs through real-world projects, educators become not only facilitators but also co-learners. This type of experiential learning builds team work, communication, and other 21st century skills as well. By creating the conditions through which students can learn collaboratively with teachers, peers, and other adults and professionals, OST and expanded learning programs can provide unique—and critical—opportunities for success in STEM and global competence.

Some examples of high-quality projects in afterschool and summer programs that foster both STEM and global competence include:

The staff from Good Shepherd Services at The After-School Corporation (TASC) site in New York City's Public School 79 created a series of activities to help their eight year olds understand water conservation. First, the students learned that water is a finite and shared resource by comparing how much water is used by a person in the United States versus someone in a developing country. Then they joined the World Water Day March and walked a mile to experience firsthand how people in the world must adapt without access to clean running water. Finally, they translated this learning to their own practices about water conservation, and created projects to raise awareness and educate parents, teachers, and peers through posters and performances, including a rap about water.

At Horizon Activities Centers Summer Camp in Cleveland, OH, their standard configuration is to offer lessons linked to a field trip each week. A lesson on transportation and world commerce provided the opportunity to rethink the traditional field trip to the Steamship Mather, a Great Lakes steamship that once shuttled between Cleveland's steel mills and the iron ranges in Minnesota. This year, the field trip was reconceived as an opportunity to talk about water displacement in the context of deep-water ports and what it takes to move trade, both on the Great Lakes as well as across the world's oceans. Students learned about today's global intricate supply system and how these shipping routes enable Ohioans to provide exports, like corn, to the world, as well as receive products from the world.

What are some of the ways you are combining STEM and global learning, in and out of the classroom?

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