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 TEACHING

BY Mary Lord
TEACHING: What's Keeping Them After School?

What's Keeping Them After School?

Flourishing clubs stress the E in STEM.


It's a Friday afternoon, yet no one in Room 400 at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise, Ariz., is stampeding for home. Instead, students hover around a dissecting tray, wielding forceps and screwdrivers to examine a hamster-like critter called Zhu Zhu Pet. Exploring the circuitry and structure of this robotic rodent captivates even non-techies, helping to hook more students on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). "It's real science, not canned science," explains math teacher Paul Tennyson. A former biology teacher who started the STEM Club in 2007, Tennyson's aim is to "directly engage" students by pairing traditional science and math academics with engineering's applications.

Welcome to the seedbed of engineering education. From suburban Phoenix to downtown Columbus, Ohio, STEM clubs are sprouting up in schools across the nation, cultivating curiosity about STEM subjects and building a pipeline of incoming engineering majors and future professionals badly needed in the U.S. workforce.

Some STEM clubs focus activities around national competitions, such as FIRST Robotics or the Science Olympiad. Others offer an array of integrated experiences, based on student interest. All appeal to a wider array of students than traditional math or science clubs while developing teamwork, leadership, and other life skills. The Cardinal Middle School club in Middlefield, Ohio, for instance, makes iMovies, designs games, and keeps video journals. Moreover, STEM clubs are fun - in part because of the engineering component.

Flourishing clubs stress the E in STEM

"Engineering and building stuff is awesome and amazing," enthuses Anthony Yu, a freshman in science teacher Joelle Miller's STEM club at River Hill High School, Clarksville, Md. Yu and his teammates light up when explaining various design tweaks they employed to improve the aim of their Maryland Science Olympiad catapult. They also joke about becoming so engrossed they lose track of time; one team accidentally tripped the school's alarm by leaving the lab after midnight. "Kids love solving problems," says Miller, who "absolutely" sees STEM club activities boosting enthusiasm and achievement in the classroom - and vice versa. "I've got kids with C averages making bridges and trajectories," she notes. "Engineering designs offer something for everyone."

Key to Proficiency

While the number of STEM clubs remains hard to gauge, after-school enrichment programs, field trips, and other informal opportunities to engage with STEM content have gained increasing support. "Informal learning environments can definitely play an important role in science learning for all ages," observes Leslie Goodyear, a program director in the National Science Foundation's informal science education division. That belief echoes a 2007 review of federally funded STEM education programs by the Academic Competitiveness Council and the National Science Board. It placed informal education on par with K-12 and higher education as one of three key pieces needed to produce STEM-literate citizens and future engineers and scientists. A 2009 National Research Council report found the need for extracurricular STEM learning particularly acute, given the squeezing of authentic science from school curricula in favor of math, literacy, and instruction that "focuses narrowly on received knowledge and simplistic notions of scientific practice."

The relaxed, after-school learning environment is one reason STEM clubs click with educators and students. Teachers "don't have to worry about high-stakes tests," notes Darcy Renfro, vice president and director of STEM initiatives at Science Foundation Arizona, a Phoenix-based nonprofit. Willow Canyon's Tennyson, who, with SFA, has applied for an NSF grant to build a statewide network of STEM clubs, finds that kids learn differently when freed from the daily grind of memorization and pop quizzes and given long blocks of time to ponder and solve problems. "There aren't enough courses where they can discover and fail, too," he says, noting that science is all about inquiry, trial, error, and learning from mistakes.

By encouraging flubs, STEM clubs change the dynamic between educator and students, who are more used to being directed than figuring out how. "Our hardest thing to do is to hand students a piece of material and say, 'Make something out of it,'" says physics teacher David Button, the robotics club sponsor at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, Va. Forced to be resourceful, STEM club participants soon learn to relish the challenge to show persistence. Briahna Workman, a junior at Vanden High School in Fairfield, Calif., always gets her homework done. But she will stay late, scour the Internet, and log countless hours testing and reworking electronics to ensure her Team Robovikes robot is ready to roll. "We failed so many times," smiles Workman, who has seen her math grades improve and has become a confident computer programmer. "We work harder for this because it's what we want to do."

“Informal learning environments can definitely play an important role in science learning for all ages,” observes Leslie Goodyear

By encouraging flubs, STEM clubs change the dynamic between educator and students, who are more used to being directed than figuring out how. "Our hardest thing to do is to hand students a piece of material and say, 'Make something out of it,'" says physics teacher David Button, the robotics club sponsor at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, Va. Forced to be resourceful, STEM club participants soon learn to relish the challenge to show persistence. Briahna Workman, a junior at Vanden High School in Fairfield, Calif., always gets her homework done. But she will stay late, scour the Internet, and log countless hours testing and reworking electronics to ensure her Team Robovikes robot is ready to roll. "We failed so many times," smiles Workman, who has seen her math grades improve and has become a confident computer programmer. "We work harder for this because it's what we want to do."

STEM club educators have a few key tricks to really grab students. One is to put them in charge of setting benchmarks and planning projects. Advisers should share their own personal STEM passions, says Tennyson, but "be mindful" of dictating activities. Instead, he works with his club officers to create benchmarks, action plans, and meeting agendas. River Hill's club officers, whose ranks include engineering and math captains, "do everything," adviser Miller says. Weekly meetings might feature guest speakers from nearby tech-corridor organizations or work on bottle rockets - a "perfect" project for ninth graders.

Competitions can spur excitement and make STEM "real" to students, says Zipporah Miller, associate executive director for professional programs and conferences at the National Science Teachers Association. "Kids can't wait to get to robotics," says Peter Drozd, who teaches introduction to engineering design at Union City High School, in New Jersey, and mentors the First Robotics team. Sophomore Sarah Roudon, at California's Vanden High School, recalls "times when I would run into problems and I would not want to come to class and deal with it. Then I'd think of the competition" and get cracking, lest the team suffer.

Tapping STEM professionals to speak, host site visits, or lend expertise via E-mail also gives clubs a boost. At River Hill, experts from area universities and companies help prep students for the Science Olympiad. Many firms, including Lockheed Martin, sponsor First Robotics teams and supply employee mentors. Such contacts can open young eyes to future careers and job contacts, while the contest cracks the door to scholarships. Willow Canyon requires members to present a PowerPoint show on a STEM career of interest to help students develop realistic views of what it takes to prepare for that field, and to help bolster their communication skills.

New Thinking About the Future

STEM clubs require time, energy, and resources to succeed - scarce commodities for most teachers and schools. Still, the potential rewards are worth it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that STEM clubs inspire participants not only to do better in their regular science and math classes but also to pursue STEM majors and careers. Consider Willow Creek's club officers: The secretary arrived with little interest in science and planned to pursue fashion design; she now intends to become a physician and is taking community college evening STEM classes. The club's president, a National Merit scholar, will study engineering next year at Harvey Mudd College, while the treasurer, a recent immigrant, earned college credit last summer at Arizona State University and wants to become a math professor.

STEM clubs appeal to a broader mix of students than traditional math or science clubs, as strugglers and physics whizzes alike can play equally vital roles in troubleshooting projects. Minorities and women, two of engineering's hardest-to-recruit populations, seem particularly attracted to the clubs. Willow Creek's STEM club officers include three Caucasians, two Hispanics, and two Asians.

Ashlei Gray, a senior at Oxon Hill High School in Maryland, who plans to pursue electrical engineering, first tuned in to engineering while working on circuits in her middle school STEM club and this year soldered parts for the club's FIRST Robotics entry. "It's really fun, even if you don't want to be an engineer," she says. Aquilla Braxton, a junior at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., caught the bug this year when she joined a FIRST Robotics team sponsored by the University of the District of Columbia's engineering school STEM club. "You get to cut, weld, solder, and stuff," she explains. "It definitely makes us more marketable." Braxton also discovered a talent for managing projects: "This team has brought the leader out in me."

Could STEM clubs unleash such leaders nationwide? Tennyson believes so. While American STEM clubs still fly below the radar, Tennyson would like to see that change and is taking first steps toward bringing the "many excellent and content-focused, isolated initiatives" under a national umbrella organization.



Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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