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Out-of-school learning extends STEM curriculum

Posted by Chad O'Connor  February 17, 2014 06:00 AM

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Ada Lovelace, a visionary mathematician who died in 1852, is recognized as the world's first computer programmer. And, in 1947, Grace Hopper, an early computer scientist, coined the word "debugging." Still, all these years later, too few young women consider careers in computer science. While computing and engineering occupations represent about 80 percent of future STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) jobs, women and minorities remain greatly unrepresented.

The December 2013 Computer Science Education Week "Hour of Code" campaign motivated more than 15 million students to try computer programming. Every day that number grows. As of February 5, 2014: 25,340,250 students had written 945,461,362 lines of code. Almost half of these students are girls. But to inspire future Ada Lovelaces and Grace Hoppers, we need to make STEM learning more available, fun, and inclusive.

Although more schools are introducing engineering and technology across the country, 90% of our schools don’t teach computer science. And when they do, it’s often as an elective. The fact is, many students and teachers are still not sure exactly what computing or engineering is. Despite the need for computer scientists and engineers, most K-12 students just aren’t motivated to choose a computing or engineering college major.

Student interest is key to pursuing STEM opportunities, and we must reach children before they give up on math and science. But STEM learning isn’t limited to the classroom. Out-of-school programs, involving project-based, hands-on learning, can offer engaging computing and engineering experiences to spark kids of all backgrounds.

Each year, the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network enables 20,000 underserved youth guided by adult mentors in 100 Clubhouses worldwide to build confidence, develop skills, and change lives through the creative use of computer technology. Forty-three percent are girls -- an estimated 50,000 young women since 1994 have participated in the program. Here’s the good news: Ninety percent of Clubhouse members plan to pursue education after high school.

Like the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, a variety of programs around the country are inspiring students of every age and background to try their hands at STEM activities.

  • Project GUTS in Santa Fe, New Mexico, encourages middle school students to design, create, and test computer models simulating scenarios for real issues like the spread of contagious disease. Using a free programming tool developed at MIT, students translate complex ideas into a computer model, incorporating observations and data. In 2012-2013, 82% of students completed a computer model.

  • Techbridge in Oakland, California, helps improve girls' engineering and technology skills by involving them in activities with real impacts like designing a prosthetic hand or building a water filter. In 2012, 85% of participants felt more confident using technology and 81% planned to take advanced math and/or science classes.

  • In Boston, more than 450,000 Museum of Science visitors – 53% of them girls – have designed, built, and tested solutions to Design Challenges -- from mini sailboats to trampolines. By testing and improving prototypes, students learn that few engineers create anything perfectly the first time. While formal education suggests competition can deter girls' engagement in engineering, these challenges introduce many goals, create different objectives, and encourage divergent solutions and ideas.

I commend the recent introduction by U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) of the STEM Gateways Act which would fund classroom and informal learning, career preparation, and other activities that young women and other underrepresented students need to join the STEM workforce.

To preserve this country's innovative edge, we must increase access to STEM for underrepresented populations. By excluding them, we deprive ourselves of a vital resource.

Formerly dean of Tufts school of engineering, Ioannis Miaoulis is president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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