Twenty youth at Bristol Bay 4-H Club stealthily maneuver in the outdoors, keeping their eyes to the sky – they’re on the lookout for birds. These youth are citizen scientists, actively counting birds and documenting their findings in an online platform where professional scientists and ornithologists use the submitted data for research.
The following week, the youth explore how oil spills can affect birds. Comparing two feathers – one dipped in water, the other dipped in oil – the youth discover that the feather dipped in oil will not dry, and investigate environmental solutions to cleaning oil from feathers.
“My favorite activity was seeing what happens to feathers in oil,” says Jacob Belleque. “I was surprised. I thought the oil would come out of the feathers, but it didn’t.”
This is Science Action Club – a curriculum designed to engage middle school youth in authentic, hands-on science during afterschool.
Programs such as Science Action Club address a real need to engage more youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at a young age. Alaska employers say STEM jobs are going unfulfilled because students are graduating from high school without the requisite skills. And in college, too few entering freshman see themselves as scientists, mathematicians, technical experts and engineers. Many youth, especially girls and other underrepresented groups, see STEM as something “other” people do – not something they can pursue.
Science Action Club is helping to make STEM relevant, important and fun for all youth. And once students engage in hands-on science, they begin to reconfigure their beliefs about themselves and their abilities. The club has helped the youth at Bristol Bay 4-H Club understand that they are part of a larger community – the Citizen Scientist Community. This sense of belonging has led to increased levels of self-confidence and STEM identity among club members.
At the start of Science Action Club, many of the youth stated that they did not consider themselves to be scientists, but that opinion has changed over the course of the club. Youth talk about activities with their peers and influence them to join the club – and the learning doesn’t stop when the club lets out. Youth voluntarily track bird activity at home and seek out and share birding books with each other. Parents have noted that dinner discussions are very animated on club days.
And that’s possibly because Science Action Club doesn’t look like your typical science class.
Instead, it looks like engineering a device that prevents a raw egg from breaking when dropped from a certain height.
It looks like designing paper airplanes to fly across the room, mimicking the flight styles of owls and falcons.
And it looks like real-life experiments, such as dissecting owl pellets, as well as going on regular birding walks.
“I like Science Action Club because we can identify birds and study them to get to know them better,” says one club member.
STEM education creates critical thinkers and increases science literacy. Science Action Club is only one example of the impact of an engaging STEM curriculum in out-of-school time. And while the Science Action Club curriculum is portable and can easily be taken on the road to different communities, access for many young people is still a problem.
The Alaska Afterschool Network aims to address these barriers, especially in rural Alaska, by forming partnerships to provide high-quality programming opportunities in the state. The Science Action Club is an example of such a partnership. The Alaska Afterschool Network brought the Science Action Club curriculum to 15 program sites across Alaska in conjunction with the National Girls Collaborative Project and the California Academy of Sciences, with funding support from BP Alaska.
The Science Action Club is only a dent in the surface of creating greater access to high-quality STEM learning in out-of-school time. And even though the research is clear on the benefits of exposing students to STEM activities, both within and outside of school, funding can still be a challenge.
Without continued, intentional support of STEM learning in afterschool, students may not get the chance to discover a future career as an ornithologist, or may not choose to pursue a college degree in physics. Afterschool programs bring STEM alive for youth – and support and active partnerships are crucial to continue bringing opportunities to our youth.
To get involved in supporting important afterschool efforts like the Science Action Club, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Alaska Afterschool Network.