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STEM dilemma: Can’t be it if you don’t see it

Most people readily acknowledge that learning about theater takes hands-on experience and time outside the standard school day. But when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), there’s a tendency to believe that the school day provides sufficient opportunity to build an educational foundation for topics that range from algebra to zoology, and that in-school activities plus a few field trips a year are enough to open young minds to the nearly endless learning opportunities in the STEM disciplines.

Research indicates that high-quality out-of-school time programs can have a significant impact on students’ attitudes about STEM fields and careers, their knowledge and skills in those areas and even their likelihood of pursuing a STEM career after graduation. There’s a saying, “You can’t be it, if you don’t see it.” If children don’t experience hands-on STEM activities and don’t interact with people working in technical fields, they won’t imagine themselves wearing a lab coat, programming a simulation for a computer game or working at a blackboard covered with complex equations.

The Afterschool Alliance recently conducted a survey of out-of-school time providers which identified the most achievable STEM outcomes for student participants. They include increasing student interest in STEM, engaging students in STEM activities and learning to value the goals of STEM education.

The secret sauce for out-of-school time program success is that they are uniquely positioned to offer students the kind of hands-on learning time that STEM education so often demands, as well as interaction with STEM professionals from the community.

That’s why robotics and rocketry teams so often find a home in out-of-school time programs, and why these programs often partner with STEM-related companies, university professors and others to give students a glimpse of future careers in the field. Out-of-school time programs can’t do the job all on their own, of course, but they are a vital way to complement and supplement the school day as part of an effective, overall STEM education strategy for the children and youth of New Mexico.

New Mexico’s national laboratories will be filling 5,000 technical jobs in the next few years, and too few of our students are on track to build the skills required to fill those jobs. We need to take steps now to improve our chances of keeping local talent local and placing people raised and educated right here in the Land of Enchantment into these high-paying and rewarding careers.

An important part of closing that gap will be to recognize, support and fund out-of-school time programs that incorporate high-quality STEM activities.