Administration's STEM Initiative Looks To Afterschool Programs

Last week, President Obama announced a number of important new steps aimed at improving and extending computer science education for the nation's K-12 students. The ongoing initiative follows up on a commitment he made during his final State of the Union address this past January, in which he said the nation should build on past progress by "offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one."

A key element of the President's latest announcement is the expansion of an existing collaboration between the 21st Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) initiative, the principal federal funding stream for afterschool and summer learning programs, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That collaboration began in the form of a pilot project in 2013, providing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) experiences to students at 20 21st CCLC sites in three states. The expanded effort will bring in four new federal partners in addition to NASA: the Department of Education, the National Parks Service, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It will now reach more than 200 sites across 25 states, providing what the White House describes as "high-quality, hands-on, inquiry-based STEM activities, as well as opportunities to connect directly with STEM professionals, to cultivate interest in the field and enhance college and career readiness."

Afterschool programs are increasingly recognized as vital to STEM education in the United States. Indeed, in recent years, education thought leaders have moved toward the model of a "learning ecosystem," recognizing the role that multiple educational institutions play in engaging and teaching all students. The model involves intentionally harnessing the unique contributions of schools, afterschool and summer learning programs, museums and science centers, libraries, and other community organizations, while providing a pathway for student learning from preschool through high school graduation.

On one level, the President's push to improve STEM education, and computer science education in particular, is about preparing the nation's economy for the future. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 3.9 million Americans work in computer and information technology fields. Beyond that, however, 7.7 million U.S. workers say their current jobs require them to use computers in complex ways. Those numbers will only grow in the years to come, and rapidly at that, as we prepare the nation's future workforce for an economy that will depend on cloud computing; "big data" storage, collection and analysis; ever more powerful computers and cell phones; and the "internet of things."

Equally important to readying the future workforce is making sure that the opportunities for such preparation are made available to all our students, not just those in financially comfortable school systems. As the Afterschool Alliance's new report on computer science education points out, African American, Hispanic and lower income students are much less likely than other students to have computer science learning opportunities in their schools. In general, computer science education is the exception, not the rule, with just 40 percent of principals reporting that computer science classes are offered in their schools. But for minority and low-income students, opportunities are even less readily available. Similarly, students at rural and small-town schools are less likely to have computer science classes available to them.

That makes the work done by afterschool programs all the more important, which is why expanding 21st CCLC partnerships to include additional afterschool programs is such an exciting opportunity. Afterschool and summer learning programs are ideally suited for STEM education, because they offer the time and space for students to roll up their sleeves and dig in to robotics, computer programming, rocketry and more. They also let students engage one-to-one with STEM professionals in their communities. As a result, students with access to STEM in afterschool programs can not only become interested in STEM, but can develop the kind of tangible skills and proficiencies that will help prepare them for the workforce. More than that, they can come to see themselves as future contributors to the various STEM revolutions reshaping our lives on a seemingly daily basis, thus imagining careers in STEM.

As important as these new initiatives are, they are only the beginning of what will be needed to make sure all children have ready access to the STEM education they'll need to thrive in the 21st century economy. That is clearly a priority for the outgoing President, and we'll work hard to ensure the incoming President and his team recognize the necessity of STEM education and the role afterschool and summer learning programs play in delivering it. The workforce of tomorrow and our nation as a whole will be better off if they do.