Welcome Back to Afterschool 2022
Five Big Ideas to Spark Family Engagement in STEM
coauthored by Linda Kekelis and Ron Ottinger
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) can spark a curiosity in children that can inspire a lasting love of learning. Interest may come from a hands-on science investigation, a role model who codes for good causes, or words of encouragement from a teacher or afterschool instructor.
The afterschool community has an incredible opportunity right now with Engage Every Student, an initiative launched by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. Through the American Rescue Plan, school districts, cities, and states have funding to ensure that every child who wants a spot in a high-quality out-of-school-time program has one.
STEM Next Opportunity Fund is a champion for STEM in out-of-school time because we know that 80% of youth learning happens beyond the classroom. Research demonstrates that afterschool and summer programs are highly effective spaces for STEM learning. STEM engagement early and often is crucial to sparking and sustaining STEM career interest in youth. Afterschool and summer programs are fertile settings for youth to experiment, build confidence, and develop life skills─ like critical thinking, collaboration, perseverance, creativity, and communication.
Because we know that caregivers are one of the biggest influences on youth participation in these programs and in their persistence in STEM, we’re raising awareness and inspiring programs, foundations, corporate partners, and policy makers to take action on family engagement. Our commitment is to support impactful and equitable family engagement with deep investment in research, resources, and professional development. The ultimate goal is to empower families to support their children’s engagement in STEM and to unleash the creativity and brilliance of their children.
We’ve learned a lot during the past two COVID years from having to adapt and find new ways to deliver STEM programs and engage with families. Let’s take this opportunity to bring back the best of our successful in-person activities from the past and build on innovative and inclusive ideas. We have seen lots of creative ways of engaging with youth and families.
Here are Five Big Ideas to elevate family engagement and make this year transformational. Together we can increase STEM opportunities for every child and every family.
1. Relationships first and foremost.
Let’s take time to get to know families before jumping into planning STEM activities this school year. Parents and guardians know their child and have insights that can help inform afterschool staff. Start this year off building relationships with home visits, calls home, welcome back notes, text messages, and conversations during pick up and drop off. Lead with a check-in on caregivers.
Here are three resources (which work for school and afterschool) to support these connections. The Beginning of Year Relationship Building Toolkit from the Flamboyan Foundation offers ideas for welcome calls that support relationships and solicit caregivers’ ideas about ways to motivate their child and support learning at home. The Parent-Teacher Planning Tool from Learning Heroes invites caregivers to describe what their child is excited to learn and needs help with. The Busy Family’s Guide to School by EdNavigator invites parents and guardians to share their interests and questions.
Look for bright spots throughout the school year to share with families. Caregivers appreciate hearing about how their child shines or what might sustain their child’s budding STEM talent. Communication isn’t one-size fits all. The piece, Research Shows Home-School Communication is Forever Changed, by the Global Family Research Project provides important takeaways. We need a mix of options in communicating with families to meet their diverse needs and experiences. We need to be flexible and continually ask families what method works best for them.
Photo credit: Beyond School Bells
2. Think outside the box. Imagine family engagement that broadens participation.
STEM is showing up in new ways and in new places. We were delighted to see the Think Make Create Lab hauled from Nebraska to Chicago this summer for the Girls Build Solutions event. This mobile Lab brings STEM to families and was created by Beyond School Bells, which is a public-private partnership of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. The Lab comes to communities that don’t have easy access to STEM materials and programming. Kids and families can show up and play and tinker with electronics, crafting supplies, textiles, paints, arts, STEM manipulatives, cardboard, and recyclables.
Want more inspiration for bringing STEM to places that are accessible to families? Check out the creative teams that are bringing STEM and literacy programs to libraries, laundromats, barber shops, grocery stores, playgrounds, and bus stops. You can read about a team that created STEM kits in Partnering with Our Food Pantry to Distribute At-Home STEM Kits. We were inspired by the partnership between University of California, Irvine researchers and families that turned public family spaces into areas where children can play and learn. With input from caregivers, STEM installations were created for parks, plazas, school sidewalks, and school drop-off zones in Santa Ana, CA.
We love the creativity of these programs in bringing STEM opportunities to families. As you plan family engagement this year, consider a blend of in-person and virtual options and try new ideas inspired by the examples showcased in Idea #2. By reimagining the when, where, and how, afterschool STEM programs can create family engagement with greater impact and greater access.
3. Build caregivers’ confidence and capacity to encourage their children.
Encouragement is their superpower, although they may not know it. Instead of proposing activities that add to their workload and anxieties, show caregivers how to integrate STEM into their everyday routines and tap into their existing knowledge and skills about STEM.
Ready4K crafts text messages with short, simple tips that map onto daily routines and explain how these practices set the stage for learning. For caregivers with young children, STEMIE shares tweet-based tips with easy STEM talk and activities. Text messages from Vroom turn everyday moments into learning opportunities without taking more time, money, or stuff. I (Linda) found inspiration from a recent Vroom tip; I repurposed a plastic takeout container into a habitat for bugs and went on a hunt for insects with my granddaughter.
We love seeing Idea #3 in practice in this video Multigenerational Tinkering with Delia Meza and Samantha Tumolo at the New York Hall of Science. Every time we watch how Delia Meza connects with families with food — making tortillas, sharing a meal, discovering STEM — we learn something new about the power of encouragement. For more examples and inspiration, check out the videos and podcasts captured by the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Together. PowerMyLearning puts kids in the role of teaching and engaging their caregivers in STEM. We love how this approach takes the pressure off caregivers. They don’t need to know the answers; they champion their child’s STEM interest with their encouragement.
4. Lead with humility. Listen, learn, and try, try again.
Make this your guiding principle for the school year. Start fresh and ask for input on elements of your afterschool programs that may help increase diversity and inclusion. If you try any of the ideas in this blog, find out how they are working for families. Rather than solicit feedback with surveys at the end of programs, start early so that there are no surprises or missed opportunities to make timely course corrections. Let caregivers know why you are asking for their ideas. Don’t forget to close the loop; show and tell families what you learned from their feedback and how you plan to use it. If there are ideas that you can’t put into practice, let families know and offer an explanation.
You can’t do everything for all families. We advocate prioritizing engagement with families that have been underserved in the past. For instance, ask parents of children with disabilities for ideas for helping their family participate in programs and addressing any potential barriers to participation. When you try new methods to communicate and new at-home activities, reach out to families who didn’t engage as much as you hoped. Let them know you want to support them and ask about barriers that may have precluded their engagement. We appreciate how Dr. Steve Constantino lifts up this idea. While we don’t want to put these caregivers on the defensive, Constantino suggests that we want them to know that we care about them and their child and want to be supportive.
5. Invest in family engagement. Invest in professional development.
Family engagement is an important lever for closing the opportunity gap in STEM. Just as impactful family engagement requires deep touch points, so too does professional development. STEM Next has built a community-of-practice model to support family engagement in STEM in out-of-school time. This capacity-building model provides opportunities for reflecting, sharing strategies and resources, and creating an action plan with partners for greater collective impact. The work is guided by the STEM Family Engagement: A Planning Tool, which elevates best practices and facilitates professional development for impactful and equitable family engagement. You can read our lessons learned in this Field Guide: How to Host a Community of Practice.
We couldn’t be more pleased that the seeds planted with our resources are taking hold in communities across the country. The West Virginia Statewide Afterschool Network led its own community of practice to deepen its family engagement for 10 afterschool programs in partnership with the West Virginia Department of Education, West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and the EdVenture Group. We highlight this example in the hopes that you will imagine how you can deepen your support. We developed The Essential Funders Guide to STEM-Focused Family Engagement to help make the case for resources to support family engagement and professional development. Idea #5 is essential for transformative family engagement, and we champion this effort in the guide.
This is the school year to come together, reimagine the possibilities, and advance research, programming, and policy for the next generation of family engagement. Let’s make our collective work matter. Let’s ensure that every family has access to opportunities to support their child at home and to broker opportunities in their communities. When we put relationships with families at the center of this work, we can have greater collective impact in closing the opportunity gap in STEM. Will you join STEM Next and make a pledge to take up one of the Five Big Ideas in this blog? For more inspiration, check out The Family Engagement Project on the STEM Next website.
Linda Kekelis is an advisor on the Family Engagement Project at STEM Next. Linda appreciates the examples of resourceful family engagement she discovers in her work with afterschool program across the country and around the world. As a grandparent, Linda enjoys learning new ways to support STEM wonder in children and in increasing her own confidence in STEM. firstname.lastname@example.org @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. Ron has been a champion for STEM learning throughout his entire career, with a particular focus around building capacity in out-of-school learning since 2004. Ron believes deeply in the power of informal STEM learning to unlock the potential for young people to innovate, create and lead, and to succeed in school, work and life. email@example.com @STEMNext
Also published on Medium.