Back in the dark ages—as in, the ’70s and ’80s—a typical afterschool routine might have involved heading home for a snack and an episode of “Scooby Doo.” Today a Pittsburgh teen is more likely to fire up her laptop and engage in a multiplayer game with other online gamers as far away as Tokyo or Dubai, or to construct intricate cities on his iPad using Minecraft.

Boosted by this vital extracurricular learning, those gamers could grow up to be the next Marissa Mayer or Steve Jobs.

But the disparity in access to digital technology leaves many kids in the dust, lagging behind watching reruns of old cartoons. A February 2013 report by the Pew Research Center found that “More than half (54%) [of the 2,462 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers surveyed for the report] say all or almost all of their students have sufficient access to digital tools at school, but only a fifth of these teachers (18%) say all or almost all of their students have access to the digital tools they need at home.”

Enter afterschool programs. They can help bridge that gap, according to a recent issue brief from the Afterschool Alliance, with support from the Noyce Foundation. The brief details how afterschool programs can help contribute to nationwide STEM education goals, especially in high-demand skill areas such as computer programming and engineering.

If you’re imagining a community center where teens play ping-pong and shoot hoops, think again. 

According to the report, “Afterschool STEM programs are proving to be highly effective and they deliver important outcomes. Youth in high-quality afterschool STEM programs show (1) improved attitudes toward STEM fields and careers; (2) increased STEM capacities and skills; and (3) a higher likelihood of graduation and pursuing a STEM career.”

Why is STEM important? Because that’s where the jobs are. According to a 2012 update from the US Department of Commerce, “The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that STEM jobs will continue growing at a fast clip relative to other occupations: 17.0 percent between 2008–2018 (BLS’ most recent projection), compared to just 9.8 percent for non-STEM jobs.”

The most effective afterschool programs offer rigorous STEM learning opportunities and reach marginalized populations. If you’re imagining a community center where teens play ping-pong and shoot hoops, think again. Students in these innovative programs are more likely to be found designing basketball simulators using the latest computer modeling equipment.

The winner of the 2013 Afterschool STEM Impact Awards, for example, enlists middle school students in applied science research projects. Participants in Santa Fe­, New Mexico-based Project GUTS—Growing Up Thinking Scientifically—engage in computational thinking to design and test computer models of real-world issues.

Another program mentioned in the report, Techbridge, reaches girls in underserved communities in Oakland, California, with hands-on programming in technology, engineering, and science. Afterschool program participants might solder a solar nightlight, design a computer animation project, or build a remotely operated vehicle. In August 2013 the program won a $2.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to expand its afterschool programs to more cities across the country. Programs such as Techbridge do double duty—helping to close the gender gap in STEM fields while addressing income disparity in STEM learning opportunities.

Closer to home, at Crafton Elementary near Pittsburgh—part of the Carlynton School District—afterschool learning takes place in a dedicated STEAM Studio. There, students use high-tech tools such as K’NEX, snap circuits, and iPads to extend classroom projects or explore their own interests.

BotsIQ, another member of the Kids+Creativity Network, engages around 600 students from more than 40 schools in southwestern Pennsylvania in an annual robotics competition. After grappling with a rigorous robotics curriculum, BotsIQ-ers guide 15-pound robots to face off in a gladiator-style competition.

Zoinks. It’s hard to imagine Scooby and his crew tackling anything like that.

 

Photo / Scott Beale – Laughing Squid