In the Growing Up Thinking Scientifically after-school program based in Santa Fe, N.M., students design, create and test computer models to examine scenarios like how a contagious disease would spread in a school.
In the Schools and Homes In Education after-school program serving rural Pennsylvania counties, middle school students, with the help of college interns, use computer-aided design to build a full-scale derby race car.
In the Techbridge after-school and summer program in Oakland, Calif., high school girls design a prosthetic hand and build a filter that cleans dirty water.
The three programs exemplify ways students learn real-world computing and engineering skills during out-of-school time (OST).
A report by the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance found that such programs help instill interest in careers in computing and engineering, which in turn leads to more students pursuing education in the fast-growing fields.
The report notes OST programs in computing and engineering aren’t bound by curriculum requirements at a time when schools struggle to squeeze the subjects into the core curriculum.
The OST programs also enable students to take on challenges and fail – without having to worry about receiving failing grades.
And at a time when women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, girls participate in the OST programs in equal numbers as boys, and minority populations participate at higher rates than whites in proportion to their representation in the general population.
OST programs often partner with community-based organizations with extensive expertise in engineering and computing, such as universities and science centers, and also bring in professional role models and mentors.
Such engineering and computing OST programs are blossoming at a time when demand for professionals in the fields is expected to soar. The report cites U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing that by 2020, there will be almost 1.5 million job openings in computing and 600,000 in engineering.
But the report pointed out only 1.5 percent of college freshmen intend to major in computer science and 10.3 percent in engineering, underscoring the need to generate more interest among students before they reach college.
Anita Krishnamurthi, vice president for STEM policy at the Afterschool Alliance, said computing and engineering OST programs such as those highlighted in the report bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world.
“One of the things we’re always trying to get across is that these programs aren’t just fluffy programs that are about getting kids jazzed about something without really doing much real learning,” Krishnamurthi said. “And there’s very, very strong learning that happens in these programs, and kids in these programs are learning some very strong computing as well as engineering skills.
“They’re being exposed to mentors. They’re being exposed to careers in these fields and so I think it’s important to highlight that afterschool really has the potential and is in many cases fulfilling that potential of being a very, very strong partner in learning in these fields.”
The report, which uses the term “afterschool” to refer broadly to before-school, afterschool and summer learning opportunities, stated, “There is a great need for an all-hands-on-deck approach to prepare out students for careers in computing and engineering – and afterschool programs are well-positioned to play a major role in this effort.”