Chicago Public Schools students spend less than 15% of their wakinghours in school. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is committed to extending theschool day and, just as importantly, after-school programming. This isexciting, but not necessarily a cure-all for better education. Forstudents who are the least engaged in school, extending the day canoften mean just more of the same, with after-school and summer learningtranslating into “drill and kill.” 

Meaningful out-of-school programs provide rocket fuel for intellectualand self-discovery. They are proving to be key to breaking theentrenched achievement gap between poor students of color and theirmore affluent peers, particularly when it comes to science, technology,engineering and math studies, known collectively as STEM.

High-quality, school-based STEM education is necessary but notsufficient to closing the achievement gap so that the STEM workforcebecomes more representative of America’s racial diversity. ChicagoPublic Schools students, most of whom are low-income minority children,score well below the national average and global competitors on scienceachievement tests. Even expanded in-school learning, valuable as it canbe, will not, alone, make up the gap. Without additional support, it isincreasingly unlikely that these students will be part of aknowledge-based workforce – and equally unlikely that the face ofscience will represent the face of America.

Project Exploration offers one kind of intervention. I cofoundedProject Exploration in 1999 to ensure that “regular” kids had a chanceto meet and work closely with scientists. Museums served large groupsof students, and highly-competitive science programs served elitestudents or families who could afford them. There was littlein-between, and nothing for the students I taught on the South Side.

Project Exploration works with 250 middle and high school studentsannually from nearly 40 schools across CPS. Overall, 85% of ourstudents come from low-income African-American and Latino families, and74% are girls. Our programs target students who struggle academically.

Project Exploration has  received the Presidential Award for Excellencein Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring and is recognized asa national model by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science andTechnology.

An independent 10-year retrospective study of the 1,000 students who have taken part in our youth science program found that:

•    95% have graduated from high school or are on track to graduate, nearly double the overall rate of CPS.
•    60% of students who enrolled in a four-year college are pursuing degrees in STEM-related fields.
•    60% of students who graduated from college earned a degree in a STEM-related field.

The overarching lesson we’ve learned is that programs offering youngpeople high-caliber science experiences alongside scientists cansubstantially expand access to academic and economic opportunities forentire communities of students who are usually written off bytraditional science education.

We also know what a STEM education in the 21st Century should includeto engage students from underrepresented groups in science:
•    Long-term relationships;
•    Access to experts;
•    High-quality, compelling content;
•    Personalized learning

Chicago has an increasingly active community engaged in STEM education.But, we are not organized around the goal of creating moreopportunities for more students. Project Exploration research suggeststhere is only one space in a summer science program for every 40010th-graders in the Chicagoland area – and CPS students compete withtheir suburban peers for these spaces.

The mayor’s agenda for extended learning could be a huge opportunityfor young people. But if we want to ensure it has a positive impact onstudents, particularly when it comes to STEM, we need to get moving ona lesson plan. We need to:
•    Map what’s available out of school, and know who is providing what to whom.
•    Make information about science programs readily available to students and parents.
•    Enable STEM and youth-program providers to convene regularly toshare practices and build capacity so they can serve more students, andserve them better.
•    Invest in structured relationships between CPS and externalpartners to ensure we’re connecting students’ out-of-school andacademic lives.

Above all, we need to collectively commit to an agenda that putsindividual students at the center of city-wide networks of educators,inside schools and in out-of-school programs, who collaborate tosupport students’ interests and development.

Together, we can create a comprehensive learning environment for youngChicagoans. Extending the school day will not only help change the faceof science, it can ensure that science is being put to work to changeand broaden young people’s horizons.

Gabrielle Lyon is co-founder and executive director of ProjectExploration. She has participated in seven international paleontologyexpeditions. Prior to her work with Project Exploration, Lyon wasdirector of the School Change Institute at the Small Schools Workshop,University of Illinois at Chicago.

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