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The Candy Bar Effect: More Research Needed on STEM Programs' Impact

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The growth of after-school and summer education activities in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—is outpacing research into the quality of the programs, particularly when it comes to understanding what programs work best for which students, according to a new report from the National Research Council. 

Although research on these informal STEM programs has increased significantly over the past three decades, "there are notable gaps in the literature," Eric Jolly, the chairman of the NRC's Committee on Successful Out-of-School STEM Learning, told Education Week.  

Jolly, who is also president of the Science Museum of Minnesota, in St. Paul, said the committee held public meetings across the country last year, organized a national summit, and reviewed and synthesized existing research.

They heard and read a lot about how individual students learn, the characteristics of high-quality after-school and summer STEM programs, and the benefits of those programs, but not much about what the report describes as  "learning ecosystems".

This includes the availability of community resources and structures to support STEM learning, such as museums and youth groups, whether families know about the activities and can help their kids at home, and if the programs complement and connect with what students are learning in school.

A key message of the report for educators is "that education reform is not synonymous with school reform, it's a much larger domain" said Jolly.  "If we really want to move the needle on education reform, we have to think more broadly than the school systems and the limited time on tasks that they have to address these issues."

The report identifies a number of promising trends for creating lasting systems of support, funding, and quality, all of which are based on studies analyzed by the National Academy of Sciences.  

  • Developing statewide after-school networks to share strategies for providing high-quality STEM programs and to seek out funding. The National Network of Statewide Afterschool Networks, created by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, contains resources, research, policy updates, and strategies for everything from establishing evaluation and assessment systems to tips on engaging parents and government to building partnerships.
  • Increasing collaboration between after-school programs and local science centers.  In 2013, the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, and the Association of Science-Technology Centers, both based in Washington, partnered on an initiative to create more hands-on learning opportunities for students at zoos, museums, planetariums, and other science centers.
  • Expanding STEM learning in existing after-school programs run by national youth organizations, such as 4-H Clubs, the Girl Scouts, and the YMCA of the USA.
  • Conducting research to understand what motivates some students and not others to be engaged in STEM fields in order to increase interest. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, SRI International, the Lawrence Hall of Science, and the University of Pittsburgh have teams working on this.

There are challenges to conducting the robust research the committee is calling for. Programs vary considerably in everything from length to age to quality of the staff. Evaluations usually don't follow students over several years to see the long-term effect of participation, and they use different measures or measure different aspects of the programs. But it is possible, said Jolly.

The report highlights the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance.  The alliance trains community members as STEM guides to connect students with mentors and programs that best meet their interests, develops model curricula, recruits experts and educators to work in the programs, and provides ongoing professional development based on program outcomes and new research.    

The alliance continually evaluates every aspect of STEM education—in school and out—to see how they work together to help students learn. An after-school hands-on program might get students engaged in a STEM field, while classroom work helps them master the subject, explained Jolly. "They're not independent, but all too often they're evaluated independently."  

He likened the importance of looking at an entire combination of experiences to eating a candy bar.  "Any one of us can eat a candy bar and not gain weight, but if we repeat it ten times a day, it will have an impact. The impact is not in any one candy bar."

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