|Sponsor||Student Researchers||Goals & Objectives||Executive Summary||Report and Video|
The need for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professionals is growing in today’s society, but interest in these fields is dwindling. In response, many organizations have developed STEM education programs. These programs are geared toward children, so that lessons can provide and help build an early interest in STEM fields. In central Massachusetts, the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester (BGCW) provides extensive services to their members, which promote academic enhancement and personal growth. The Club has seen increased member interest in piloted STEM educational programs. As a result, the BGCW asked the WPI-WCPC to create a program that would foster STEM interest and increase understanding. The purpose of our project was to develop and prototype an engaging educational program, which would allow the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester to effectively and consistently introduce its 10-13 year old members to STEM. Ultimately, the program will get the kids excited about STEM through interactive learning objectives and fun activities that apply to real-world scenarios.
In the 21st century, the American economy revolves around modern technology and the services that innovations have provided for the American public that complement our everyday lives (e.g. cell phones). Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – commonly known by the acronym STEM – are the disciplines that deal with the theories and application of the scientific method and mathematical concepts. These disciplines fuel innovations in the U.S. economy. However, despite a projected job growth in the STEM sector of 13 percent by the year 2022, less than 20 percent of American students are entering STEM related majors in higher education. Based on declining numbers of students in STEM fields, the U.S. Government considers STEM an “area of national need” (Kanny et al., 2014).
In response to current national trends, STEM educators have created a movement with the solution of increasing the number of people pursuing STEM careers is early STEM education, especially in communities with underserved youth. In America, women and minorities are vastly underrepresented, as STEM professionals have remained predominantly white and male (Grossman & Porche, 2013). By understanding the obstacles faced by underrepresented populations in STEM, academic institutions and other segments of society can work to change the trickle-down discrimination faced by children in those populations.
Restrictions (e.g. financial, admission numbers, resources, etc.) in publicly funded educational programs have limited the capability for growth beyond the classroom in children primarily raised in low-income, urban settings. There are few extracurricular programs/activities that are available to these students which may supplement the information being taught in their classrooms (Kanny et al., 2014). Nationwide, many institutions have integrated STEM courses into their curriculums in order to bridge the gap of under representation as well as increase the number of college students entering STEM professions, which remains lower than 20 percent (Synder & Dillow, 2013). By providing services that promote and engage all learning styles, instructors can expose students to STEM in a multi-faceted way. Local STEM professionals have expressed that without accommodations made in the learning environment and learning structure, children will not reap all of the possible educational benefits that may bolster their learning experience. Furthermore, without early exposure to the STEM disciplines, the national trend of underrepresentation and the gap present in college graduates entering the fields will ensue.
In recognizing the importance of early STEM education, the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester (BGCW) sought to collaborate with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Worcester Community Project Center to establish a STEM core curriculum. As a nonprofit organization in Worcester, Massachusetts, the BGCW upholds a mission to promote educational achievement and contributes its own ideals to the community (Foundation for the Future, 2013). The goal of our project was to develop and implement a hands-on STEM education program (mirrored with MA Common Core Standards) at the BGCW. The purpose is to provide their middle school members (age 10 to 13) with engaging activities to increase their appreciation towards STEM, and broaden their understanding of their abilities to attain such opportunities.
We created a list of objectives to achieve our goal of creating a 7-week STEM education program for the students of the BGCW. First, we conducted a meta-analysis of existing STEM enrichment programs working with 10-13 year old students. After holding small focus groups with the children at the BGCW, we identified preconceptions about STEM and the level of interest in STEM amongst these children. We determined appropriate and feasible learning outcomes for the program after consulting online sources, and interviewing several local STEM educators.
Using the learning outcomes that we developed, we created an implementable STEM curriculum that would ensure the program participants would achieve these learning outcomes. We based the curriculum on responses from focus groups and online sources recommended by the STEM advocates and educators we interviewed. Preceding the creation of the curriculum, we selected a few activities to pilot with the children at the BGCW. As a means of evaluating the pilot sessions, we administered pre- and post-evaluations in the first and last sessions. Based on these evaluations, we modified and improved the program curriculum to prepare for its launch in the spring of 2016.
Background research, focus group discussions, interviews, and pilot sessions, allowed us to distinguish specific findings. Our findings, although numerous, fell into categories, which addressed larger, more complex topics. The findings were categorized by: Best Practices for STEM Integration in Urban Youth and Perceptions of and Level of Interest in STEM. Through our research, we discovered that some educational approaches are better at inspiring children’s interest in STEM. We compared the approach and results of suburban youth STEM enrichment programs, such as Camp Invention and other tuition-based programs against STEM programs at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster and the Worcester Think Tank, to identify the most effective curriculum for the children at the BGCW. We found that children learn best through hands-on activities, the process of tinkering, after interviewing Camp Invention instructors (T. Desmarais, personal communication, November 2, 2015). However, the concept is that urban youth will thrive exponentially in an experiential learning environment as they are able to gain responsibility and ownership over their learning process. Dr. Deborah Harmon Hines, the Vice Provost of School Services at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, supported this claim by expressing that urban youth students flourish in hands-on learning environments due to individual responsibility they are given matched with the confidence they receive performing worth-while activities. This was bolstered with further findings supporting the relation to real-world, problem-based learning, and the understanding that economic and cultural backgrounds do not hinder the academic progress or ability among urban youth.
Further supported through field interviews and focus groups with BGCW youth, we found that at the BGCW, cultural and economic backgrounds influence the interest among 10-13 year olds in the STEM disciplines. Through conversation with our sponsor, it was clear that students at the BGCW come from varying cultural backgrounds, and the influences placed upon them from their parents, religion, or cultural beliefs is very realistic (J. Fowling, personal communication, November 26, 2015). These influences may dictate not only the interest level of the student regarding STEM, but also children’s ability to foresee themselves in specific STEM careers (if hindered by or under pressure of parental opinion). However, through focus group discussion and observations within the Club, we found that interest in STEM is still expressed among BGCW members. To foster such interest within a classroom or program, we found that students perceive lessons in a nature that is reflective of the teaching style and learning environment. This means that through further understanding of possible obstacles children may face, classroom environments and instructors may foster varying learning styles and levels of interest.
Based on our findings, we established four learning outcomes that we used to develop the curriculum. The learning outcomes can be found in Table i. The outcomes outline the goal of the program, and represent the optimistic future and attainable opportunities for each program member. By providing lesson plans focused in experiential learning, but grounded in Common Core Standards, students will actively engage in educational lessons that broaden their understanding of the STEM professions and increase positive attitudes towards STEM.
Through the collection and organization of our findings, we uncovered six recommendations to provide further sustainability of the program. First, we recommend all future STEM program lessons at the BGCW provide a hands-on, experiential, problem-based learning experience. This will bolster the depth with which urban youth are able to engage with the STEM professions. Furthermore, we recommend that STEM programs, like this one, -be evaluated to assess student improvement and program success. This evaluation can come from student self-report or discussion that lay out strength and weakness, which provide foundation for establishing the success of the program. Consecutively, we recommend that the pre- and postevaluations, supported by objectives laid out for each individual lesson, should be administered at the beginning and end of the program to assess student and program improvement. By providing pre- and post- evaluation discussions, instructors will be able to assess how well the lesson was received/understood based on student response. We further recommend that the students be segregated based on gender to ensure that underrepresented girls have a supportive environment, but that curriculum remain the same for both sexes to secure equality and similarity among content within the lessons. To ensure continuity and familiarity within the classroom, we recommend the BGCW have program alumni return as mentors to provide volunteer services to their other students. We felt as though this recommendation would be easily fulfilled as BGCW members remain in the organization until the age of 18, and older children are encouraged to take a leadership or mentoring role. By allowing students to return and mentor, younger program members will not only have consistent/familiar role models, but also a peer mentor that can provide additional understanding to the STEM topics.
Finally, to confirm that the students are receiving increased exposure to the STEM fields and professionals, we recommend, if funding permits, that the program provide field trips to STEM related locations such as Maker’s Spaces, or consider guest speakers/groups to facilitate certain activities during a session. We recognize relevant recommendations for out-of-school STEM programs, and also offer suggestions that may act as viable opportunities in program improvement and ways to provide for a more sustainable program.
We developed a 7-week core curriculum to be implemented by instructors of the STEM program at the BGCW in the Spring of 2016. Table i contains a synthesis and summarization of the components of the program’s curriculum.
|Goal:||To develop and implement a hands-on STEM education program that focuses on increasing student appreciation and positive attitudes towards STEM, and promote an understanding of the depth of STEM fields.|
|Duration of Program:||
Bolstered by smaller backup units (permits flexibility)
The curriculum mirrors Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards relative to middle school students.
5th through 8th grade students (ages 10 to 13)
|Structure of Sessions:||Each hybrid lesson consists of one or more ways to associate discussion with varying STEM professions. Students participate in lessons involving both group and individual work. Upon completion of the program students will have participated in activities involving one or more of the STEM disciplines.
Table i: Layout of the curriculum and its involved components
With this project, we believe the program can inspire urban youth in Worcester to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math in the future. Children at the BGCW will learn not only the benefits of a STEM career, but also that STEM is an exciting and potentially very rewarding field.