I’ll never forget the expression on Maria’s face the first time she looked through a telescope and saw the craters on the moon. I noticed a similar expression when Martin turned on the motor of his fuel cell-powered model car and saw it zoom across the classroom’s vinyl floor. Theirs were not just looks of amazement that come when young people explore something they are interested in for the first time. They were looks of triumph and success. You see, it was my 11th grade students, Maria and Martin, who had written proposals to the teacher crowdfunding site, DonorsChoose.org, in order to secure two telescopes and four model fuel cell car kits for our school.

DonorsChoose.org is a crowdfunding platform for teachers to post materials and projects that they need for their students. When I was a teacher, I used the site all the time to request books and materials for my science classes. I thought it was important to involve my students in what they would like the class to have, so I would start each year by having them scour the internet to look for science equipment and supplies that interested them. Each student would then write a proposal to secure these materials and the classes would vote on which student’s proposal they wanted me to submit to DonorsChoose.org.

Due to the generosity of citizen donors, I never had one of my student proposals not receive funding.

Supercharging Learning by Moving Beyond Classroom Walls

Fast forward 10 years, where I am now a program officer at Overdeck Family Foundation, and looking to support the same curiosity and passion for out-of-school STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) that I used to see in the classroom.

Why do we care about the time students spend out of school? Well, we know that students spend far more time out of school than they do in school (80% vs. 20%) and we also know that 75% of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences have said that their interest in science was sparked outside the traditional school setting. Thus, we see the time students spend out of school as a rich and underutilized opportunity to allow students to discover new interests and pursue their passions.

When I first started at the foundation, I reached out to Charles Best, who used to be a classroom teacher himself before founding DonorsChoose.org in 2000. I asked Charles if we could do for out-of-school time what DonorsChoose.org has done in school in terms of providing educators with STEM materials to engage their students. He mentioned that he had been giving a lot of thought to this idea because he had observed that teachers are very quick to request books that they could send home with their students, but often didn’t think about requesting other things that would support their learning beyond the classroom.

The time students spend out of school is a rich and underutilized opportunity to allow students to discover new interests.

Science Everywhere: Take I

After discussions with the Simons Foundation’s Science Sandbox, which is dedicated to inspiring a deeper interest in science, we launched Science Everywhere in early 2017 as a way for teachers to receive a one-to-one match to obtain STEM materials to use outside the classroom. While we suspected teachers and their students would be interested in these types of materials, the response we saw to Science Everywhere showed the educators’ real demand.

In total, we funded nearly 1,000 projects through DonorsChoose.org, reaching over 170,000 students. 2,700 citizen donors donated nearly $250,000 to match funding provided by Science Sandbox and Overdeck Family Foundation.

The projects that were supported were truly inspiring. Dave Shafer from Skiles Test STEM Elementary School in Indianapolis was able to allow his students to investigate a mock crime scene and experience what it’s like to be a forensic scientist for a day. In Chicago, first-grade bilingual teacher Josefina Rivera received sky observation kits, which allowed parents to explore the night sky with their children at home.

Not only did we want students to experience fun and engaging activities, but we wanted to understand what impact these experiences had on the students. Towards this end, we enlisted University of Virginia Professor Robert Tai to administer and analyze pre- and post-surveys to students who participated in Science Everywhere and compare them to students who did not participate. Interestingly, even before the classes engaged in Science Everywhere, students in these classes had 31.2% greater odds of reporting interest in science and engineering careers than their peers in classes whose teachers did not participate. This was an unexpected finding, but we hypothesized that teachers who looked for opportunities for their students to engage in STEM learning outside the classroom might already be bringing these types of stimulating learning opportunities into their classroom–and thus already had an impact on their students’ STEM interests.

Prof. Tai’s research found that the students who participated in Science Everywhere had 54.7% greater odds of reporting interest in science and engineering careers than their peers who did not experience Science Everywhere. This meant that participating in Science Everywhere correlated with increased interest in science and engineering career aspirations for 75% of participating students. We were excited by this finding, and by our ability to drive STEM interest through out-of-school resources for students.

Students who participated in Science Everywhere had 54.7% greater odds of reporting interest in science and engineering careers than their peers who did not participate.

Science Everywhere: Take II

The first Science Everywhere campaign worked so well that Science Sandbox and Overdeck Family Foundation decided to partner with DonorsChoose.org for another campaign. During the first campaign, Prof. Tai’s research showed that not all projects had the same impact on students’ STEM skills, including things like collaboration, discovery, and creating. Therefore, we narrowed the nearly 1,000 projects supported during the first campaign to 10 projects that demonstrated the greatest impact on students’ STEM skills. The second Science Everywhere campaign offered educators a choice of 10 projects and a four-to-one match from Science Sandbox and Overdeck Family Foundation.

Children and teacher experimenting with science and gardening. Image provided by DonorsChoose.org.

To say we were thrilled by the response to our second Science Everywhere campaign would be an understatement. Nearly half a million dollars in matched funding was completely used up in just two weeks, demonstrating the strong demand for these types of resources from teachers across the country. Of the 10 projects offered, over 50% of the educators asked for either take-home STEM kits or robotics kits for their students, showing that teachers are hungry for turnkey solutions to facilitate student STEM learning. In total, the second Science Everywhere campaign funded nearly 650 projects and reached over 40,000 students.

The Distribution Power of DonorsChoose.org

Through the two Science Everywhere campaigns, we learned that educators in the U.S. have a real interest and demand for hands-on, engaging STEM resources that students can take home. We also learned that DonorsChoose.org is an extremely powerful platform to reach teachers and students across the country. Over 80% of all schools in America have at least one teacher who has posted a project on the site.

One of our strategies in the Inspired Minds portfolio is to scale evidence-based practices in order to impact more students with out-of-school STEM learning opportunities. After the first two campaigns, we realized we could use DonorsChoose.org as a platform to scale impactful programs. We are currently testing this approach with Engineering is Elementary (EiE)’s Engineering is Everywhere and Engineering Adventures, two afterschool engineering curricula for elementary and middle school students, respectively.

Our latest campaign provides $300,000 and a two-to-one matching offer to stretch the funding we receive from citizen donors and allow even more students to benefit from engaging Next Generation Science Standards-aligned, hands-on, out-of-school STEM resources.

It’s been a little over a month since we launched the campaign and we have already supported over 200 projects reaching over 24,000 students. At this pace, we expect the campaign to run until the end of this school year and reach nearly 75,000 students, providing engineering experiences outside the classroom to each of these students for the cost of only $6 per student.

Here’s what some of the teachers who responded to the campaign had to say:

“My students are…dreamers, thinkers, talkers, and questioners. My students come from diverse backgrounds, but the one thing they have in common is their excitement to learn new concepts and strategies that will help them be successful in all walks of life!” – Mrs. Perry, Grade 3-5, Zebulon, NC

“WISER is the guiding acronym in our library instruction. It stands for Wonder, Investigate, Synthesize, Express, and Reevaluate. This acronym guides all our work as these are skills needed to be lifelong, contributing members of any community.” – Mrs. Smead, Grade 3-5, Las Vegas, NV

If you would like to help teachers like Mrs. Perry and Mrs. Smead show their students that science is truly everywhere, you can donate to the campaign here. For every dollar you give, Overdeck Family Foundation will double your contribution. Or go to DonorsChoose.org and search for another STEM topic that interests you, and that provide kids an opportunity to not just learn science, but to do it!