Hands-On STEM Pushed in Out-of-School Experiences

By Nora Fleming — December 12, 2011 2 min read
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The rising push for STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—curriculum in U.S. schools has seemed to place increasing pressure on the expanded learning and after-school communities to provide engaging, hands-on experiences for young people, particularly outside classroom walls.

In fact, this past year was dubbed the “Year of Science in Afterschool” by the Afterschool Alliance in conjunction with the National Summer Learning Association, and the National AfterSchool Association. The National Center on Time and Learning also released a report last month about the need to use expanded learning time for STEM, and in particular, science instruction.

Today, I have a story out that looks at how one out-of-school program uses engaging, hands-on learning to encourage youths’ interest in science.

The article looks at the National Park Service‘s increasing efforts to enhance its education programs and reach a fourth of U.S. children within the next five years through a profile on NatureBridge, a nonprofit partnered with the National Park Service that provides hands-on field science education opportunities for students.

NatureBridge runs residential programs in four national parks: Olympic, Santa Monica Mountains, Golden Gate, and Yosemite, and will be be adding a campus in Prince William National Park in the coming year, due to a $4 million grant from Google.
I was fortunately able to visit the campus at Golden Gate in California’s Marin Headlands to experience the program firsthand. The campus is chock full of opportunities for hands-on field science, a few mentioned in the story—nature hikes, microscope lab, water collection at a local pond&$151;and a few others not mentioned, like a marine-science lab with touch tanks full of native California marine life and a nearby marine-mammal center.

A look to the environment as a resource to improve students’ understanding of science has also increased. California, for one, has now accepted the use of 85 curricular units that connect the environment to other core subjects, like history and English/language arts that teachers are able to use in conjunction with their standard lesson plans.
One of the curricular units could show a history class, for example, how the Industrial Revolution affects the environment, Gerald A. Lieberman, the director of the San Diego-based State Environment and Education Roundtable, who helped develop the materials, told me. The idea is to encourage “environmental literacy” in students more cost effectively, particularly for schools that may not have access to programs like NatureBridge.

The National Park Service itself is ramping up efforts to make access to parks and historic sites more affordable. In addition to using social and digital media and providing more transportation for students to visit the park, the Park Service is really reaching out to teachers to encourage use of the parks in lesson plans and through out-of-classroom experiences. One of its programs, for example, lets teachers train as “teacher rangers” in national parks during their summers away from school and learn how do incorporate hands-on science or history lessons into their school curriculum.

Look for another story out in the coming weeks that looks at another out-of-school program focused on encouraging interest in STEM.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Beyond School blog.