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Most Parents View STEM in After-School as Elementary, Survey Finds

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Parents rate homework help, physical activity, and healthy snacks at the top of their list when choosing after-school programs for their children, but access to hands-on activities in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—is gaining a following, according to Full STEM Ahead, a new report from the Afterschool Alliance, released Tuesday.

A majority of parents—53 percent—with children in after-school programs said STEM opportunities were an important factor in their decision. Providers seem to be listening; nearly 70 percent of parents reported that their children's programs do provide STEM learning.

In a nod to the changing demands of the workforce, 70 percent of all parents, whether or not they have a child in an after-school program, think they should all provide hands-on STEM learning.

"These new data make clear that parents recognize the value of the STEM education afterschool programs can provide," said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, as she released the findings at a national after-school STEM summit in Washington.parents importance of STEM.png

The Charles Stewart Mott and Noyce Foundations, which organized the event to publicize model programs and foster partnerships, brought together firepower from business, government, education, and nonprofits, including representatives of Google and Intel, members of Congress and state Legislatures, and officials from the YMCA of the USA and the Boys and Girls Clubs, two of the largest after-school providers. Mott and Noyce combined have invested more than $8 million over the past 4 years, to expand STEM opportunities, especially for students living in underserved communities.

"If we really want to educate all kids in science, engineering, and technology, we need to have partnerships with after-school and summer providers that can really spark the interest of kids, particularly those who have been left out," said Ron Ottinger, executive director of the Noyce Foundation. "Relying on K-12 schools alone is not working."

Based on the survey results, low-income, African American and Hispanic parents agree with that assessment.

  • 71 percent of Hispanic parents and 74 percent of African American parents say after-school programs should offer STEM opportunities, compared to 69 percent of white parents.
  • 57 percent of low-income parents, meaning their children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, said they're more inclined to select an after-school program if it offers STEM learning, compared to 50 percent of more-affluent parents.
  • 60 percent of African American parents and 57 percent of Hispanic parents concurred that availability of STEM programs is an important selection factor, compared to 47 percent of white parents.
  • More than 70 percent of Hispanic and African American parents believe that their children will benefit by participating in these programs through greater interest and skills in STEM, compared to 62 percent of white parents.
  • 68 percent of low-income parents also agreed about the benefits, compared to 63 percent of higher-income parents.

But beliefs and reality don't always coincide. The survey found that higher-income students have more STEM activities in their after-school programs than programs that primarily serve low-income children.

The responses were pulled from a survey of more than 30,000 households conducted for the Afterschool Alliance's 2014 ethnic difference.pngedition of America After 3PM, the advocacy group's seminal report on demand and availability of after-school programs.

This was the first time, out of three surveys published since 2004, that parents were asked to provide information about STEM in their children's after-school programs.

After-school and STEM are a great fit, said Anita Krishnamurthi, vice president for STEM policy at the Afterschool Alliance. The after-school field is focused on youth development and giving students a voice, choice and a chance to be creative and collaborative," and those are the very skills that STEM programs also teach," she explained.

That's why the Alliance and other advocates are pushing for more partnerships like the one between the Science Club at Chicago's McCormick Boys and Girls Club and graduate students in science and technology at Northwestern University. Each week students conduct experiments, solve real world problems or design and build devices, including a prosthetic hand, focused on a different field of science, from health and medicine to the environment.

The more exposure middle and high school students have to high-quality science, technology, engineering, or math programs outside of school, the more likely they are to major in a STEM field in college, according to a study by University of Virginia researcher Robert Tai, published three years ago in the International Journal of Science Education. 

In an interview for a U.Va. publication, Tai suggested that strengthening the connection between out-of-school time programs and STEM "through targeted recruitment activities may prove to be the best solution to the problem of access among children in underserved communities."

The challenge is figuring out just how to expand and maintain those connections. 

"That interest can flourish or wither depending on how you tend it," cautioned Krishnamurthi. "If you feel like you're good at something you're more likely to want to stick with it, which makes you even more interested. But if you don't even have the option to discover whether you like it and can become good at it, then it's a lost opportunity and we've shut doors in kids' faces before they even got to see what was behind the door."

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