For me, it was crawling through the artery of the Giant Heart exhibit at the Franklin Institute. For Durrel, it was the first time his robot clicked into gear and rolled forward. For Zaheraa, it was seeing her bacteria sample glow after splicing and transforming its DNA with a green florescent protein.

For me and my former students, the moments where STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) captured our attention didn’t always happen in the traditional classroom. Some people use the term “informal” to describe out-of-school learning, which emphasizes the serendipitous moments that can occur at the bus stop, in the grocery store, and from breakfast to bedtime. At Overdeck Family Foundation, we believe family play, afterschool programs, clubs, museums, summer camp, and field trips are all key ways to support children in exploring, experimenting, and practicing hands-on problem solving.

Children spend 80% of their waking hours outside of school, but the way they spend that time differs, and that impacts their academic development. By the time they reach sixth grade, middle-income children have spent 6,000 more hours learning than their lower-income peers, primarily due to differences in afterschool and summer learning opportunities.

That is why our Inspired Minds portfolio, where I am the program analyst, is committed to increasing access to out-of-school STEM learning. We hope to use out-of-school time to provide today’s children with abundant opportunities to develop 21st century skills, explore the world, and discover their passions.

Fewer than 15% of our nation’s 75 million children have access to high quality out-of-school STEM learning.

We believe learning that incorporates STEM concepts is one of the best ways to stoke a child’s creativity or cultivate an existing passion. Fewer than 15% of our nation’s 75 million children have access to high quality out-of-school STEM learning. Yet our society demands that we constantly sift information, make decisions based on evidence, tackle problems systematically, and ideate creative solutions. Those are exactly the types of skills STEM teaches.

We also believe that STEM skills will help increase children’s college-readiness. We know 64% of high school graduates are not prepared for college-level science, while 60% are not prepared for college-level math. By engaging students early and providing access to resources that can stoke achievement from birth through 12th grade, we hope to move the needle on these metrics.

How We Do It

1. Increase access to high-quality out-of-school STEM experiences by scaling cost-effective, evidence-based STEM programs and advocating for increased support of afterschool STEM spending.

We view a program as high-quality if it can improve students’ attitudes toward STEM, increase their STEM knowledge and skills, and increase the likelihood they graduate and pursue a STEM career.

For example, our grantee Girlstart empowers students to be “brave, creative, and curious.” Girlstart’s afterschool program is designed around engaging activities that introduce STEM concepts in a hands-on and informal environment. Participants collaborate to solve real-world challenges using the scientific method and engineering design principles. As a result, Girlstart shows evidence of enhanced learning and increased likelihood that a girl will enroll in more advanced and pre-AP math and science courses.

For the last 20 years, Girlstart primarily reached girls in Texas. In 2018, this changed as Girlstart scaled their summer camp and afterschool program to both the Bay Area and Boston. We are thrilled to partner with this organization to help bring out-of-school STEM programming to young women in these new geographies.

But for every child enrolled in an afterschool program like Girlstart, there are two children on a waitlist who are denied the chance because of a lack of funding for these programs. By supporting Afterschool Alliance to build capacity, relationships, legislative champions, and coalitions, we are paving the way for increasing available funding for STEM afterschool.

2. Increase quality of out-of-school STEM experiences by linking in- and out-of-school STEM and evaluating promising early-stage programs.

We know the impact of high-quality programs, but unfortunately not all out-of-school programs have the resources to create an impactful experience. We believe we can increase the quality of these programs by strengthening their ability to deliver hands-on and engaging experiences that complement students’ in-school learning.

Schools and teachers are the backbone of the American education system. But by including the power of scientists, engineers, tech professionals, professors, and researchers, out-of-school STEM programs can supercharge learning for the next generation. This is part of the logic behind STEM Learning Ecosystems, which create partnerships between school districts, afterschool providers, institutions of higher education, cultural institutions, businesses, and families to provide engaging learning moments throughout the day and to link what children are learning inside and outside of school. Our grant to Education Results Partnership also allows STEM Learning Ecosystems to conduct predictive analytics, use data to promote equity in their communities, and understand student pathways from K-12 through post-secondary to the workforce.

Not all out-of-school programs have the resources to create an impactful experience.

3. Build positive perception of STEM through research and development of family STEM programs, the Family Math movement, and social media efforts.

We know engaged and empowered families are a key component of learning for children of all ages, but many parents struggle to support their child’s STEM learning. Only 18% of families with preschool-aged children report having recently done a science activity at home.

That’s why organizations like PowerMyLearning and Engineering is Elementary are designing resources for families to use together outside of school. That way children can not only see their parents engaged in and supportive of their STEM learning, but also experience fun learning outside the classroom. In fact, research shows that parents can create a mindset that promotes strong STEM identities in their children.

We also support the emerging field of “Family Math” which aims to expose children to math early and often in a non-academic setting before they start formal schooling. Parents and caregivers are our key partners in this work. We believe that by helping families overcome the very common experience of math anxiety, we can close the early math opportunity gaps that occur even before children enter Kindergarten.

Our other efforts in this area focus on using social media to increase math relevance for tweens and teens. Math can be found in lots of unexpected places, and mathematician Po-Shen Loh has partnered with influencers across a range of activities like cheerleading, video games, and music to help children connect with math in a whole new way.

4. Provide children who show high potential with mind-expanding learning opportunities that build STEM and 21st century skills.

Our future depends on innovation in medicine, energy, agriculture, and other fields. However, due to large gaps in exposure to innovation by income, gender, and race, we fail to develop talent that could radically improve our society. That’s why we believe it’s important to bring “Lost Einsteins” into the pipeline through targeted efforts that identify and support high potential children.

We aim to reach these students with appropriately challenging opportunities that spark interest and cultivate STEM talent. That’s why we’re excited to support summer programs like the Center for Talented Youth and the New Jersey Governor’s School in the Sciences, which unlock potential for exceptional academic achievement.

Engaged and empowered families are a key component of learning for children of all ages.

Our Research

In addition to our programmatic work, we’re also funding research to answer the following questions:

  • What outcomes result when students receive relevant and engaging out-of-school STEM learning experiences?
  • What is the impact of linking STEM education across a community, including schools, families, out-of-school, institutes of higher education, cultural institutions, and businesses?
  • What would happen if parents placed as much early emphasis on math skills as they do on reading?

Our Successes

We’re encouraged by growth in these areas:

  • Millions of children are taking advantage of STEM afterschool programs annually
  • A majority of parents support increasing the amount of STEM in afterschool programs
  • The emerging field of Family Math is supporting communities to create a world where race and income no longer predict opportunities for young children and families to learn, practice, and enjoy math
  • Through our support of STEMworks, we’ve been able to help out-of-school programs develop sustainable high-impact models that allow them to tap into public funding

We’re excited to continue learning, and hope you join us in support of this important work.