Seeking Consensus on Afterschool STEM Learning

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March 24th, 2020

Note: In our January newsletter, CAISE provided a high-level overview of a convening organized by the University of Washington, the Afterschool Alliance, and the National Girls Collaborative Project called From Common Measures to Measures in Common: Documenting STEM Learning in Afterschool Programs. Ari Hock, a second-year PhD student in the Learning Sciences and Human Development program at the University of Washington, has compiled and composed some further reflections on the convening here.

A Not-So-Common National Convening

There are thousands of afterschool programs across the United States providing youth with enriching STEM experiences. But until recently, there has been limited coordination at the national level to facilitate collaboration and share best practices—and often it has been driven by funders and their interests, rather than being driven by the needs of the practitioners and researchers/evaluators.

From December 11 to 13, 2019, educators, policymakers, and researchers gathered in Washington, D.C. to discuss how afterschool and informal STEM programs are measuring success and to plan for the future. This convening was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program (award #1811487).

Day 1: Building Community (and a Board)

As afterschool practitioners, funders, and national allies grabbed coffee and filtered in, the room buzzed with energy. Many of the participants had been working in the field for years, in some cases even decades, and were eager to learn from each other and from the new voices that the convening brought to the discussion. Jen Rinehart, senior vice president of research and policy at the Afterschool Alliance, kicked off the meeting by welcoming the group and celebrating the wealth of experiences they brought with them. Tony Smith, former Illinois state superintendent and founder and CEO of Whyspeople, set the tone for the meeting and emphasized the importance of the work that would take place over the next three days. Dr. Katie Headrick Taylor, assistant professor of education at the University of Washington and principal investigator of the convening, stressed the importance of foregrounding equity as we consider goals for STEM program evaluation.

In the first panel, afterschool practitioners revealed the multitude of goals that their programs aimed to achieve. Emily McLeod, previously Director of Innovation, Research, and Curriculum at Techbridge Girls, talked about establishing pathways for more young women of color to enter STEM careers. Meanwhile, Dr. Latasha Wright, chief scientific officer at BioBus, shared that her team is looking beyond workforce development and aiming to create a more scientifically literate society.

To visually augment the discussions, a “build-a-board” activity took place in the back of the room. Participants were invited to add post-it notes that listed constructs they were interested in evaluating. These included psychologically oriented concepts like curiosity and motivation, as well as concepts that were more social in nature, like home/school environment. By the end of the day, the practitioners had filled up the board with post-its of all shapes and sizes, reflecting the myriad goals that had been discussed throughout the day.

Day 2: Joining Research and Practice

After the first day of brainstorming and heartfelt discussion, afterschool and informal STEM researchers joined the group on Day 2 to share ideas on how they could best collaborate to achieve the goals they had articulated.

During a panel discussion, Patti Curtis, a STEM education fellow at the U.S. Department of Education, spoke about the need for more qualified STEM professionals to bolster the national economy, as well as the Department’s efforts to reduce reporting burdens on afterschool programs. This led to a conversation about opportunities to more efficiently capture metrics. Dr. Marvin Carr, senior evaluation officer at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, discussed his organization’s cohort-style grants, in which multiple programs are evaluated using a common set of criteria by an external evaluator who is funded as part of the grant.

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New ideas had been circulating fervently, and the build-a-board was adorned with an ever-growing assortment of post-its. Participants broke into self-selected affinity groups based on the research themes that had crystallized, such as STEM identity and career awareness. After taking some time to discuss the significance of their themes and how they might play out in the context of their work, group members shared out their ideas to the room. When the panelists departed, they left the group with a set of priorities to keep in mind for the duration of the convening.

Day 3: Why We Do the Work

After two days of illuminating conversations, philosophical questions began to surface among the researchers: What do we mean by “common measures,” anyway? Why and under which contexts are they important? And, perhaps most importantly, what are our reasons for engaging in this work and goals we are trying to achieve? On the third day, space was created in the agenda for participants to grapple with these questions.

Meanwhile, a new build-a-board had formed. This time, it was divided into three sections to solidify thoughts and questions that had been hanging in the room: reasons for doing the work, new research questions to pursue, and specific actions to take.

The reasons ranged from communicating impact to funders and policymakers to disrupting dominant culture. Interestingly, the research questions tended to be self-reflective. For example, participants asked what kind of research serves a social justice agenda and what the basic purpose of research was. Meanwhile, the actions listed tended to follow from the first two sections. One post-it note read: “Understanding & learning from research/practice partnerships that enact social justice.” Another mentioned telling new stories to contribute to counter-narratives.

After participants had added their final post-its to the board, the convening officially ended. However, many participants chose to grab one of the available box lunches and continue chatting with their colleagues about the work that lay ahead. Fittingly, the group ended the convening by embracing the value of conversation and relationship-building that falls outside the scope of a formal learning environment.

Convening evaluation results have indicated that many participants are interested in moving various aspects of this work forward and project leaders are planning follow-up meetings and activities strategize potential next steps. Watch the CAISE newsletter and for outputs and products of the convening as they become available.