Are Better Schools Enough to Advance STEM Learning? A Q&A With Ron Ottinger

Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next

Ron Ottinger, Director of STEM Next

I’ve long thought that the best way to get more kids into STEM fields is just to give them better schools. This way more Americans are in a position to make choices about their career paths and vocations. But there is obviously more to it than that, so I asked Ron Ottinger, champion of STEM learning and the Director of STEM Next, a few questions about changing the STEM status quo. (Interview edited for length and clarity).

Andy Rotherham: Why isn’t creating great schools so kids can make their own career and academic choices enough to advance STEM attainment in this country?

Ron Ottinger: There is just not enough time in the school day to actively engage students in STEM. Young people are only in the classroom for about 20 percent of their day and must shift from one subject to the next, without being able to fully immerse themselves in any one subject.

From my years of investing in helping build the field of STEM, spending 12 years on the San Diego City School Board and 10 as executive director of the Noyce Foundation, I have seen how high-quality afterschool and summer programs can support schools in improving students’ understanding of and interest in STEM.

Our studies at the Noyce Foundation and others show that consistent participation in high-quality afterschool programs is linked to increased interest, engagement, and persistence in STEM subjects, and that some afterschool programs have helped close the math achievement gap.

We now have new, large-scale research from The PEAR Institute at Harvard University and The Institute for Measurement, Methodology, Analysis, and Policy at Texas Tech that involve nearly 1,600 youth across 11 states. The research shows increased interest in STEM careers and gains in important 21st century skills that are in high demand in today’s workforce — such as critical thinking and perseverance — as a result of participation in an afterschool STEM program. Additionally, 80 percent of students reported a positive gain in their STEM career knowledge.

AR: What is the biggest obstacle to expanding STEM afterschool programs across the country?

RO: One of our key grantees, The Afterschool Alliance, released a major survey in 2014 of parents’ attitudes toward afterschool called America After 3 PM. The survey found that for every child in an afterschool program, there are still two waiting to get in.

There simply are not enough afterschool and summer programs available to meet the demand, nor the funding to help all families with access. At the same time, we know from our STEM funding of the large youth development organizations (Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Girls Inc., the National 4-H Council, and Y-USA) that less than a quarter of the 18 million youth across their organizations are receiving STEM programming during the school year and in the summer.

From our involvement in the National STEM Funders Network and The STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative, we know that private and corporate philanthropy are playing a vital role in rethinking and reimagining where, when, and how young people learn STEM.

Some state governments have added funding for STEM programming in afterschool and summer. But there is still much to be done. We need to increase the availability of high-quality afterschool STEM programs for all kids — with a particular emphasis on those who need it most. Afterschool STEM programs are indeed helping all children — and particularly girls and underserved youth — learn STEM concepts and skills and identify themselves in future STEM careers.

AR: What can states and the federal government do or not do to help expand and support these programs?

RO: Support for afterschool programing received bipartisan support over the past eight years, from the President to Congress to Governors and state legislators. A number of states have added or increased funding for STEM in afterschool programs, and 14 states have made STEM a priority in awarding federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grants.

We were saddened to learn that the new President and Secretary of Education chose to recommend cutting the 21st Century Learning program that helps 1,682,469 youth across the country and in every state receive afterschool homework help. This program also introduces kids to learn about STEM subjects in a fun and inviting way, kids who would not otherwise have the opportunity to do so. The same is true of the federal Child Care Development Block Grant program provides support to low-income, school-age children regularly participating in assisted afterschool and summer learning programs. We plan to work with our foundation colleagues and others throughout the country to save these vital programs.

AR: What equity issues inhibit better STEM outcomes? What role do class, race, and ethnicity play?

RO: African-American and Latino workers now represent 29 percent of the general workforce, but just 16 percent of the advanced manufacturing workforce, 15 percent of the computing workforce, and 12 percent of the engineering workforce — all rates that have remained essentially flat. And women have seen essentially no improvement in their representation in these fields in the last 13 years. By 6th grade, students from lower-income families will have spent about 6,000 hours less than their more affluent peers in STEM enrichment programs.

Afterschool and summer programs have the potential to level the playing field by preventing summer learning loss and supporting all students’ interest and engagement in STEM. There is a growing infrastructure of afterschool and summer programming focused especially on serving young people from groups that are typically underrepresented in the STEM fields.

According to the 2014 America After 3 PM study I mentioned earlier, 72 percent of youth in afterschool STEM programs across the country are African American, 74 percent are Hispanic, and 73 percent participate in free and reduced-price lunch. And initiatives such as Imagine Science — a partnership of the YMCA of the USA, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the National 4-H Council, and Girls Inc. — have prioritized equity and are working toward inspiring more under- and un-served youth to engage in STEM learning opportunities never before offered to them.

AR: What role should businesses or other partners play in developing afterschool programs? Why should it matter to them and how can we get them more engaged?

RO: Nationally the demand for STEM talent in the workforce is growing. We hear from companies in every state that they aren’t able to fill the positions they have currently because of a lack of STEM skills.

So, we can no longer say that our students need STEM skills if they want to be doctors, engineers, or mathematicians; ALL students will need to develop these skills to be a part of the changing workforce in the United States. Tomorrow’s coders, economists, nurses, and construction managers are right now learning these essential skills in their afterschool STEM programs, including critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and teamwork.

We need to inspire young people and prepare them with skills and knowledge to be successful. To do that we need to forge strong links between schools, afterschool programs, businesses, universities, community partners, and more. Robust cross-sector partnerships with businesses and community partners are key to strengthening STEM learning, creating STEM career pathways, and developing scalable approaches to high-quality afterschool and summer STEM learning.

The articles in our compendium, STEM Ready America, cover the in- and out-of-school STEM ecosystems that are emerging with the support of the national STEM Funders Network and large and medium-size businesses in their states and locales. Companies such as Rolls-Royce in Indiana and Boeing in South Carolina have been working with partners in schools and afterschool programs to better prepare youth to meet the workforce needs of business and industry. Additionally, we are seeing business leaders act as mentors for youth by teaching them about different STEM career fields and the importance of STEM in the workforce.

This is especially important for young girls and youth from communities who need to see that these careers are attainable.