Q & A With Carol Tang on STEM After School

By Nora Fleming — January 23, 2012 5 min read
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Carol Tang is leading the charge for the Coalition for After School, an organization based at the University of California, Berkeley, that aims to have more out-of-school programs put science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, instruction into their curricula. The coalition’s 2,300-plus members run the gamut of after-school programs nationwide, large intermediary organizations like TASC and the National Afterschool Association, museums, and science-focused organizations like the New York Academy of Sciences.

The coalition facilitates partnerships to enhance STEM in out of school, develop models for incorporation into existing programs, and mobilize stakeholders that can help expand STEM programming. For example, it’s currently working with 826 National, a creative-writing program, to develop curriculum that uses science experiences to provide inspiration and engagement as the basis for writing.

“Through our work and that of others, I sense a growing recognition that science after school makes sense for young people to engage in STEM out of the classroom as a way to become scientifically literate, explore the world around them, hone critical thinking and career skills, and attain economic stability as adults,” Tang said.

Tang, who serves as director, gave me her thoughts on the benefits of providing STEM after school, what some of the best STEM programs are doing and how they can help lead others, how to make these models financially feasible, and how to provide professional development to out-of-school-time staff to teach STEM in their after-school programs. In addition to her work with the coalition, she has spent a decade at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences supervising outreach and education programming and as head of public programs.

EW: What’s the benefit of providing STEM after school?
CT: From a science education perspective, STEM after school can provide learning opportunities that differ from—but complement—classroom efforts and that hopefully can counter the negative stereotypes about science in the general public (for example, that science is “too difficult” and done by “unattractive people who are unlike me”). In the after-school environment, young people could have more time and greater exposure to hands-on, open-ended investigations and opportunities to successfully pursue their own interests and hypotheses.

EW: Should out-of-school programs focus their curriculum mostly on STEM now?
CT: Youth today depend on after-school programs for so many different services and experiences that it’s unrealistic to think that all OST programs should give up their current strengths to turn solely to STEM. Youth still need to have exposure to art, physical activity, and social interactions. However, I strongly believe that hands-on, inquiry-based STEM can often be meaningfully integrated to meet those needs and the core mission of many after-school programs. I think there needs to be a multipronged approach where all children should have access to STEM-focused programs, as well as to experiences where science can be the means to achieve other youth-development objectives.

EW: What are characteristics and components of the best programs that provide STEM instruction? How can these programs guide others?
CT: The best STEM experiences for youth after school are the ones that take advantage of the OST environment: giving young people time to explore their own interests through open-ended inquiry, providing them with opportunities to share their experiences, and to apply their learning to their own lives and communities. I think there are many lessons from classroom STEM, science museums, and youth-development research, but the key is identifying a suite of best practices for the unique characteristics of after-school settings. Because after-school programs are so diverse in terms of their demographics, hours, staffing, partnerships, resources, and community settings, we need to identify a range of model programs so that individual practitioners can find relevant elements and inspiration.

EW: What will be some of the biggest challenges of putting STEM curriculum into OST programs? What resources are out there to help programs?
CT: I think the most difficult challenge is tracking down the various pieces of the puzzle and figuring out which ones fit together well. What I mean is that there are currently different sources of activities, curricula, professional training models, volunteer networks, vendors, and potential partners focusing on STEM after school. But their quality varies, the resources needed range greatly, and they are scattered; this makes them difficult to find, compare, and assess their quality and potential impact on youth. I think that through national, regional, state, and local entities, efforts are under way to give people the skills to self-assess program needs, identify quality elements which fit those needs, and then build capacity to do more. When existing resources are being coordinated and used effectively, it makes it easier to secure funding to strategically address gaps.

EW: Is it possible for instructors who have no STEM background to teach this?
CT: Since the best after-school STEM programs allow children to explore open-ended questions and design their own experiments, instructors who are comfortable eliciting questions, guiding inquiry, accepting uncertainty and mistakes, and becoming co-learners can excel at providing high-quality STEM after school. So in fact, the youth-development skills that OST educators are already practicing can “pre-adapt” them to leading the best kinds of STEM experiences; conversely, just being proficient in scientific content and vocabulary isn’t enough.

EW: How can programs make STEM professional development financially feasible?
CT: The challenge for the field is to consider which elements of training are essential, and which things can be scaffolded through time or customized. Given the lower levels of funding OST receives and the more transitory nature of the after-school workforce, the training needs to be as concise and cost-efficient as possible. And, given the part-time and seasonal staffing found in after school, the training probably needs to be delivered through different platforms. There is also a great potential in community partnerships where science-rich organizations can provide the needed technical knowledge, real-world examples, and role models to after-school programs. Conversely, the science-rich organizations get a chance to work with youth-development professionals and together, they can make an impact on new audiences.

Photo 1: Carol Tang
Photo 2: Girls participate in science in an out-of-school program.
Photo 3: Conference of coalition members. Photo courtesy of Project Exploration
Photos 1 and 2 courtesy of Lawrence Hall of Science

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