We Need to Give Low-Income Kids a Chance at High-Tech Futures, and After-School Programs Can Help

We Need to Give Low-Income Kids a Chance at High-Tech Futures, and After-School Programs Can Help

by Kevin Washington and Ron Ottinger, from Education Post

STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math—has become a national priority. STEM jobs are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs in America, and nearly 80 percent of all new jobs created nationwide over the next decade will require STEM skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, perseverance and experimentation.

After-school and summer learning programs are an important place for our nation’s youth to gain these skills, especially youth from low-income households and girls, who have too often been left out of the STEM economy.

STEM learning in after-school settings has the power to engage youth in important ways. We believe these experiences can change the arc of a child’s life—and when you do that, you can change the arc of a community and the arc of the nation.

The power of STEM learning goes beyond academics and careers. It can be lifesaving.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made this point earlier this year, saying STEM is one way to give kids a vision of life beyond violence.

“We have to give kids exposure,” Duncan said. “We have to give them a glimpse into what exists outside of their block or their neighborhood.”

Many of these young people face barriers to pursuing STEM careers from an early age. Consider that the wealthiest 20 percent of families devote almost seven times the resources to their children’s enrichment activities outside school than do the poorest 20 percent.

This leads to a significant learning and opportunity gap. Youth from middle-income households spend 6,000 more hours in after-school and summer learning activities than their peers from low-income households by the time they reach sixth grade. The impact of this disparity is evident in school and later in life, with youth from low-income households less likely to demonstrate interest in STEM and pursue STEM careers.

The organizations we lead are committed to addressing this gap and creating more opportunities for all young people to gain essential STEM skills.

For the YMCA, this work is part of a larger commitment to ensuring that all children—regardless of gender, neighborhood, or background—can reach their full potential. STEM Next, a national field building leader working in partnership with organizations like the YMCA, is dedicated to increasing opportunities in STEM learning with an emphasis on youth in underserved communities and girls.

One partnership example is Imagine Science.

The YMCA, among the nation’s largest youth-serving organizations with 9 million youth members, joined forces with the Boys & Girls Club of America, Girls Inc. and the National 4H Council in this initiative to bring hands-on STEM learning to underserved youth nationwide. YMCAs in 48 states have integrated STEM activities into programs that engage 250,000 youth–with a goal to reach 200,000 more this year.

An overwhelming majority of Americans approve of funding programs that support after-school and summer learning. So do many in Congress which, despite proposed cuts, voted earlier this year to maintain funding for these vital programs.

However, the new budget proposal once again seeks to eliminate funding for after-school programs, so as Congress takes the reins of the budget process this fall, work remains to ensure this critical funding is protected. Cutting the funding would be devastating for the millions of young people and their families who rely on after-school programs, including after-school and summer STEM learning.

There is abundant evidence of the effectiveness of after-school STEM programs. For example, a new research study supported by STEM Next and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation shows that more than 70 percent of students participating in STEM-focused after-school programs report increased interest in STEM careers and gains in important areas including interest in science, science identity and 21st-century skills.

The real crisis in after-school learning is that for every child in an after-school program, there are two waiting to get in. We need to increase the number and reach of these programs to ensure access for every child.

Youth-serving organizations and philanthropies are committed to doing our part, but we need the federal government to maintain its funding commitment. Failing to do so would undoubtedly push too many of our nation’s youth even farther behind.

If our nation is to solve the great social challenges it faces, after-school STEM learning opportunities like those provided by the YMCA and STEM Next can be a vital part of the solution.

Protecting funding for these programs will help kids, improve our nation’s economic competitiveness, and take an important step towards equity. Our young people will drive America’s continued economic prosperity and solve our pressing challenges—but only if we invest in their education and their lives today.

Kevin Washington leads the YMCA, an organization to which he has belonged since 1978. There he has overseen a radical strengthening of communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility

Ron Ottinger is director of the STEM Next Opportunity Fund. Previously he ran the Noyce Foundation which is widely credited with changing the conversation in this country about where young people can learn STEM-related concepts.