Got STEM? Families are the Key as Kids Head Back to School

By Linda Kekelis, Family Engagement Advisor; Ron Ottinger, Executive Director

Photo Credit: New York Hall of Science

As kids go back to school, their families are looking for safe places for them to do their homework, engage in physical activity, and learn new skills. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) afterschool programs meet these needs and more with activities that teach skills for school, work, and life. Afterschool activities help build on the enthusiasm of kids who are already into science, robotics and math. They also spark an interest in those who haven’t discovered their love for tinkering or aptitude for coding, yet.

But all circumstances aren’t created equal in afterschool time. Did you know by sixth grade, economically advantaged children have spent 6,000 more hours learning out of school than youth born in under-resourced communities? The statistic is sobering, and we want to change the status quo. STEM Next Opportunity Fund (STEM Next) has been committed to quality STEM programming for all youth, both as a funder and advocate for out-of-school-time programs and professional development for national youth-serving organizations. We are taking on this opportunity gap by advocating for family engagement in order to promote access to hands-on STEM experiences, both in and out of school.

As part of our commitment to closing this opportunity gap, STEM Next is investing in family engagement with research and resources. We invite you to work with us to make sure that every child and every family has an equal opportunity to benefit from quality STEM afterschool programs. Here are four ideas to support families in your community this school year and open the door to STEM opportunities.

#1 Make it personal. We often hear from kids and parents that a personal invitation made all the difference in getting them to enroll in a STEM afterschool program. Encouragement from a trusted person is more impactful than a flyer handed out at registration or a back-to-school email. Think outside the box and enlist a wide range of adult champions to encourage kids and parents. The front desk staff, school counselor, librarian, sports coach, and lunchroom crew can help encourage a diverse group of kids to try STEM in an afterschool program. For more ideas on diverse recruitment strategies, check out this thoughtful resource from Jean Ryoo and the Susan Crown Exchange.

#2 Be mindful of who can most benefit from STEM enrichment programs. STEM can be intimidating for parents. In a survey by Bayer, nearly one-third of parents reported that they didn’t feel confident enough in their scientific knowledge to help their child engage in hands-on science activities. Parents with less formal education are even less confident. You can empower parents by helping them understand that it’s their encouragement that matters. They don’t need to be an expert or have the answers; they can support their child by enrolling them in a STEM afterschool program. Let parents know about the Connectory and this map created by Afterschool Alliance where they can find afterschool programs in their community.

#3 Encourage parents to enroll their daughters in coding clubs and engineering programs. Sometimes parents don’t realize that their daughters are interested in these subjects or could be if they had the chance. Afterschool programs with their hands-on projects that have personal relevance can be the perfect place for girls to build confidence and skills in computer science and engineering. Check out Girls Who CodeBlack Girls CodeGirl Scouts, and Girls Inc., which offer free and low-cost programs. In the company of girls and with the support of role models, afterschool programs can provide experiences that lead to lifelong engagement in STEM. The National Girls Collaborative Project identifies elements to look for in quality programs for girls.

#4 Make sure that families with kids with disabilities know that they are welcome in afterschool programs. STEM afterschool programs can be especially important for youth withdisabilities. Engaging in hands-on STEM and meeting role models in afterschool programs show the possibilities and the accommodations that can transform an interest into a career possibility. Make personal invitations and create marketing materials with photos and language that explicitly welcome youth with disabilities. For more ideas on disability inclusion, check out these resources: our case study Set a Place at the STEM Table for Youth with Disabilities and their Families, the Summer 2019 issue of AfterSchool Today, and Kids Included Together.

Photo Credit: Family Creative Learning

We hope that you try one or more of the ideas in this blog as you welcome families to a new school year. For more strategies on supporting families in STEM, visit the Family Engagement Project at STEM Next. You will find our White Paper and other resources to help you empower families in STEM. We understand that families bring different levels of knowledge and experience in STEM as well as social capital for accessing resources for their children. We are committed to ensuring that every family has access to resources to support their child at home and to broker opportunities in their communities.

We close with a shout out to the Afterschool Alliance. Through its work, the Afterschool Alliance ensures that children have access to affordable, quality afterschool and summer learning programs. We celebrate the organization for its longstanding leadership in policy, research, and practice.

Linda Kekelis, PhD, is an advisor for STEM Next Opportunity Fund and founder and former CEO of Techbridge Girls. Family engagement has been a passion for Linda and at the center of the research and programs she has led. @LindaKekelis

Ron Ottinger is Executive Director of STEM Next Opportunity Fund and former co-chair of the national STEM Funders Network and the National STEM Learning Ecosystem Initiative.  


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