Executive Summary

Introduction

American students have fallen to the middle of the pack internationally in science and math learning, with relatively few pursuing careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields (US Department of Education, 2014). After-school programs are unique environments with the opportunity to introduce STEM in creative and engaging ways, including by adding in art to create “STEAM” programs. By implementing key teaching concepts such as activity before content (ABC), divergent thinking, and cooperative learning (Eisenkraft, 2003; Hunter-Doniger & Sydow, 2016; Kelly & Zhang, 2016), these programs can make a major impact on how students develop. The Boys & Girls Club of America (BGCA) is a national organization that strives to provide an inclusive and helpful atmosphere for its members. The mission of the BGCA is, “…to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens” (BGCA, 2017 p. 6). The Boys & Girls Club of Worcester (BGCW or Club) is the local affiliate working to get its members more engaged in STEAM subjects and activities. The BGCW already has several resources, such as a new 3D printer and Lego Mindstorms kits that can be utilized during STEAM activities. Even with the new technology that the Club has acquired, however, there is still a stigma against STEAM among the members. Overcoming this stigma was one of the main challenges that came with integrating STEAM into the Club. Another challenge was the Club not having enough people power (staff and volunteers) to adequately support a robust program. Our team collaborated with the staff at the BGCW to develop a sustainable STEAM strategy at the Club, focusing on the members from ages nine to twelve active in the Club’s Learning Center.

Background

STEAM is a strategy that focuses on building a relationship among all component subjects (STEAM Education, 2015), especially through a hands-on approach that teaches the subjects in unison (Hom, 2014). There are, however, several challenges to STEAM. Many students are not interested in STEAM subjects because, for a variety of societal factors many consider these subjects too difficult or unrelatable (Sithole et al., 2017; van Tuijl & van der Molen, 2016).

When teaching STEAM subjects, three key concepts have been found to optimize learning for students. They are Activity Before Content (ABC), divergent thinking, and cooperative learning. ABC is a method developed by Arthur Eisenkraft, PhD, of UMass Boston (Bybee et al., 2002) in which students are first engaged in an activity and then the material they are supposed to learn from the activity is presented afterward (Eisenkraft, 2012). Divergent thinking is the concept of exploring various solutions to a problem (Hunter-Doniger & Sydow, 2016). This concept is pivotal to creativity because it allows students to look at a problem from multiple angles and think of novel solutions. Cooperative learning can be incorporated in STEAM and involves placing students in groups to accomplish a task as a team (Gillies, 2016). When conducted correctly, cooperative learning can foster positive group interactions and direct the team in their findings. Cooperative learning simultaneously teaches the subject matter, important social skills, and a sense of respect for peers.

These concepts were central to designing a STEAM program for the BGCW which provides a safe after-school environment for children around Worcester to participate in various activities that interest them. The Club is open to children ages 8-18 and offers programs in several different areas, such as athletics and the arts.

Methodology & Results

            To develop a successful STEAM strategy and stimulate member interest in STEAM activities, we collaborated with the staff of the BGCW on a set of objectives based on the Everything STEM Planning Guide of the Boys & Girls Club of America (Fowlkes et al., 2017). This document contains systematic guidance on how to create a STEM program that can be evaluated and enhanced over time. The guide also works well for assessing STEAM because the same ideas generally apply. The first objective was to use the Everything STEM Planning Guide’s “STEM Readiness Assessment” to evaluate the Club’s STEAM program at the beginning of our project across five key categories (Table 1). The assessment found that the Club is primarily at the foundational level and with a little work, could move to intermediate.

Table 1: STEM Readiness Pre-Assessment Total Scores

table 1

For the next objective we utilized the “STEM Improvement Plan” from the Everything STEM Planning Guide. We collaborated with several staff members on the Improvement Plan to understand which improvements were feasible. Through consideration of the results from the STEM Readiness Pre-Assessment, priorities were agreed upon and immediate improvements implemented in four of the five program categories including:

Technology and Hardware

  • Assembled 3D Printer
  • Prepared and Assembled Lego Mindstorms Kits
  • Fixed Smart Board

Space

  • Optimized Learning Center for STEAM Activities

Programming

  • Lego Mindstorms: Developed, tested, refined, and documented a Race Track Activity and a Programming Activity
  • 3D Printer and TinkerCAD: Created tutorial videos for TinkerCAD and conducted a 3D Printer Drawing Activity

Staffing

  • Created a Volunteer Guide to assist with running the Learning Center and STEAM activities
  • Team members served as volunteers at the Club with STEAM backgrounds

 

After implementing these immediate improvements, we performed the STEM Readiness Post-Assessment to see how the improvements affected the BGCW’s STEAM program rating (Table 2). The post-assessment showed that with volunteers who have STEAM experience, a dedicated space, and increased time allotted to the program, the BGCW’s STEAM program went from the foundational level to the intermediate level.

Table 2: STEM Readiness Post-Assessment Total Scores

table2

Once the immediate improvements and post-assessment were completed, we reflected on the improvements and discussed with staff, and drew the following insights designed to help future staff members and volunteers improve and operate the STEAM program.

Insights Regarding Running the STEAM Program

  • Staffing and space are the top priorities for the STEAM program to become sustainable.
  • Staff wants to start with one hour dedicated to STEAM per week and build from there.
  • The Club’s Fenway Room is not an option for dedicated space for the STEAM program.

Insights Regarding Lego Mindstorms

  • The STEAM activities using the Lego Mindstorms kits incorporated well the three key concepts.
  • Members like building and controlling the robots.
  • Members get excited about controlling the robot and sometimes are rude to their peers while waiting for their turn.
  • Members like programming the robot and enjoy completing challenges with the robots.

Insights Regarding the 3D printer and TinkerCAD

  • The STEAM activities using the 3D printer and TinkerCAD incorporated well the three key concepts.
  • Video tutorials for TinkerCAD will most likely work better than written tutorials.
  • It does not work well if multiple members use one TinkerCAD account.
  • Members should not operate the 3D printer themselves.

Insights Regarding Facilitating STEAM Activities

  • Members work better on activities that have a common goal rather than a competition.
  • Members usually work better together in small groups than large groups.

Insights Regarding BGCW Staff and Volunteers

  • The staff and volunteers work hard to make sure the members have a safe and supportive environment to come to after-school.
  • The BGCW would benefit from more staff members.
  • The BGCW staff have been trying to fund a full STEAM program for several years.

 

Recommendations for Long-Term Improvements

            The BGCW is in the process of developing a successful STEAM program for its members. The technology and hardware components of the program are excellent and the other categories of the “STEM Readiness Assessment” and “STEM Improvement Plan” can improve significantly. The team compiled several recommendations as the Club continues to develop its STEAM program. The recommendations are primarily for increasing staffing levels and volunteer contributions to the Learning Center:

Recommendations for the Learning Center

  • Determine a specific time and structure for the STEAM program.
  • Clarify volunteer expectations while in the Learning Center.
  • Reaffirm the Learning Center purpose and rules with members.

Recommendations for BGCW Staff

  • Hire a part-time dedicated STEAM staff member.
  • Regularly review volunteer program performance at staff meetings.
  • Form a stronger, ongoing connection with WPI.

Conclusion

This project aimed to develop a sustainable STEAM strategy for the BGCW and to stimulate member interest in STEAM activities. Many of the members do not have the same opportunities as children growing up in wealthier neighborhoods. The BGCW would like to level the playing field and provide opportunities in STEAM for its members. We hope the STEAM activities at the BGCW will inspire members to pursue their passions, be it STEAM or something else. We also hope that the STEAM strategy implemented at the BGCW will be sustained and further developed with new activities that cater to member interest.