As leaders push Chicago schools to focus more on STEM programs–science, technology, engineering and math–a new study finds that more than 88,000 students are exposed to these disciplines outside of school and more than half of them are girls.

But Latino children, in particular, are left out of these programs. And few programs are offered during the summer.

“Summer is underutilized, [but] because of the flexibility it is probably the best space,” says Gabrielle Lyon, co-founder of Project Exploration and chair of the Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative.

Fewer STEM programs are offered during the summer because they are typically connected to schools rather than community organizations.

Another concern pinpointed by the report is that many STEM programs are “one-shot” activities without mentoring or internships that can really make the experience deep and lasting.

The study is ground-breaking, given that not much is known about the universe of out-of-school programs, especially those that focus on STEM learning. Lyon says that the report is “just the tip of the iceberg” in trying to get a handle on the availability of quality learning programs outside of school.

Ultimately, Lyon would love to see a website where parents or students could search for programs based on their interests and needs. This summer the city created a web portal called to provide information on summer learning opportunities. But the portal mostly links to government agencies and parents have said it is not easy to navigate and find summer programs, especially for younger students. 

Toward a better system

Jessica Donner of the Collaborative for Building After-School Systems says collecting data is a first step in building a better system. The collaborative is working with Chicago and several other cities to do so, with initiatives that include training for staff as well as implementing quality control measures.

A national movement to create more STEM programs during out-of-school time—after school and during summer—is under way, Donner notes. Traditionally, after-school and summer programs have been dominated by sports, arts, and tutoring programs. Like Chicago, most cities do not have a coordinated effort.

“They are diverse, energetic, but fragmented,” she says.

Lyon says Chicago leaders pursued the survey because there was a sense that a lot was happening, but the available information was anecdotal. In addition to creating better systems, she says teachers and families need to change the way they think about STEM programs.

For instance, many STEM programs require applications and look for students who already have an interest in the sciences—both of which may be a major barrier for Latino students who don’t have much background in science.

Lyon says programs need to be intentional about recruiting Latino students.

“We need to have programs designed for Latinos and do outreach to families,” she says. “We need to tell them that you don’t need to be a scientist to do these things, but you can do them because you are curious and inquisitive and they are relevant to your families and communities.”

Also, some teachers and students think STEM programs are only for so-called “smart” kids. Yet Lyon notes that science, much like art and music, can ignite a spark in students who are otherwise not engaged in school or doing well academically.

“The students that are the least likely to sit in a chair and turn to page 46 are often the most creative and the most likely to make discoveries,” Lyons points out. “Science often opens up doors. Students might find their passion is in observation.”

Further, she says learning the skills needed for scientific inquiry, such as the difference between opinion and fact, is important for all students.

Donner says that staff for out-of-school STEM programs need not be experts in a scientific discipline in order to provide quality learning. With some training, good youth workers can facilitate such programs.

The study did not examine program quality or whether out- of-school STEM programs had any correlation with a child’s classroom learning.

The study was conducted by members of the Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative, a group that includes city officials, university researchers and STEM program leaders. The Noyce Foundation and the Chicago Foundation for Women paid for the survey and the development of the report.

This report is the first in an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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