Hands-On STEM Clubs
Hands-on activities truly engage students in learning and allow for multiple ways of grasping scientific and mathematical concepts. Unfortunately, they also tend to be messy and timeconsuming, to require significant adult oversight, and, consequently, to be somewhat infrequent in elementary schools. As outsiders, we have more time and manpower, plus fewer constraints; we see hands-on STEM clubs as an important supplement to school study.
With guidance and support from site leaders, volunteer mentors work weekly with youngsters to learn and to enjoy science, technology, engineering and mathematics projects, as much as possible in one-to-one relationships — which, by design, are also sending the message that, “You are worth my time.” These clubs are held at schools at lunch-time or after school at community centers, and both children and volunteer mentors make a minimum one-semester commitment, so that relationships can develop. After a year, several teachers will embed Educom projects into their teaching, opening the door for our volunteers to offer more and different projects.
We believe assistance from our volunteers at first was key to teachers gaining confidence in their ability to handle such hands-on projects in the classroom. The focus of these activities is not on facts or content so much as on the process of scientific investigation and on real-world applications. We want children to learn to think like scientists,to gain confidence in their ability to “do” science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to develop the skills of scientists: carefully observing, recording data, asking questions, drawing inferences, predicting outcomes. They should be thinking about what happens in the physical world and why, about how they might experiment to explore or to demonstrate theories. Just as young children can easily pick up computer skills because they are not handicapped by the fear and assumption of incompetence that so many adults exhibit, so they can pick up competence in mathematics and science before it occurs to them to doubt their capacity to do so.
That early success lays the affective groundwork for continuing success. Moreover, just as regular practice enhances the performance of athletes and musicians, practice at acting and thinking like a scientist in informal settings translates to better performance in more formal school settings. In a way, we think of our science clubs as a “practice field” for classroom activities and achievement testing.
Many would agree in principle that hands-on learning is best, because learning by doing piques interest and promotes deep understanding of concepts. Considerations of time, materials and supervision, as noted above, limit opportunities to learn this way in classrooms. Our tremendous corps of volunteers, plus the equipment and supplies we have amassed over the years, make it relatively easy for us to safely offer these important experiences to students. We
also have the connections to bring in university scientists to help with projects requiring particular expertise or specialized equipment. As we move forward, we would like to add other curriculum for our children that will foster literacy and excitement for learning. These will include mentors leading books clubs, writing clubs, computer clubs, and others that surface due to the interests of our children.
Site leaders, program coordinators, teachers, and mentors all help to identify, plan for, and provide appropriate learning opportunities for students and their families in their larger community.
Our at-risk youngsters do not have the richness of experiences enjoyed by children who are regularly taken to museums and fairs and zoos, sent to summer camps, and enrolled in extracurricular classes and workshops. We also find that many middle and upper middle class students and teens are not experiencing these resources in our own community.
Educational trips are intended to offer our youth such horizon-widening experiences — and to make their parents aware of community resources that they can take advantage of. We provide logistical planning, pay for admission when necessary, and arrange transportation when possible, hoping that the family will return on its own later. Volunteer mentors help to provide supervision, and community partners help with costs and logistics, enabling them both to provide service and to get involved with us and our programs. The coalition-building inherent in such efforts is almost as important as the particular projects on which we cooperate.
Summer Camps and Internships
As we are able to enhance knowledge transfers, we plan to work with college students, and alumni in a particular area, to develop monthly day camps and internships with various organisations. During these internships, students will be matched with organisations in their field. Our mentees will volunteer as activity assistants, based upon their personal interest areas.
Our aim is twofold: provide our mentees, alumni, and mentors the opportunity to be summer camp mentors and to provide students with internship opportunities. We also love the fact that these programs would run concurrently in different regions.