Talking Points: Building public support for afterschool STEM

These talking points use communications strategies that have been tested and proven effective in advocating for why afterschool STEM matters, how it works, and how to improve it. Think of them as a set of go-to topic sentences, which you can use to develop "paragraphs" devoted to your specific communications purposes. Copy them word-for-word or adapt them, but when adapting, take care to maintain core elements in each.

Helping children learn STEM is key to building a prosperous economy for all of us.

The interconnected content areas of science, technology, engineering and math give us the building blocks for understanding and improving the systems that power our economy and advance our society.

  • The primary driver of the future economy, and especially job creation, will be innovation, largely from advances in science and engineering. By adding to the sector that develops new products and services, we add to the pool of people creating jobs for our economy. In fact, one job in the high-tech sector leads to four new jobs in local goods and service industries (Hathaway, 2012).
  • We're experiencing a rapid growth in the need for STEM professionals. Between 2014 and 2024, the number of STEM jobs will grow by 16 percent—which is more than the projected growth for all other jobs (Change the Equation, 2015). Low graduation rates from high school and college mean there's a smaller number of students who can gain advanced STEM skills. And of those students who do graduate, few obtain a post-secondary degree in STEM (Change the Equation, 2015).

This talking point uses the VALUE of Collective Prosperity.

This is about preparing our society for the challenges of the future.

Given our complex and changing world, we will need citizens who are critical thinkers and problem-solvers to meet our modern challenges. Learning in science, technology, engineering and math—the subjects called "STEM"—builds the knowledge and skills needed to tackle problems systematically. STEM helps to build the ability to sift through information, draw reasonable conclusions, make decisions based on evidence and come up with creative solutions.

  • STEM subjects cultivate experience with experimenting and checking assumptions against evidence, which helps make everyone a better problem-solver. Additionally, STEM learning hones relevant, real-life observation and analysis skills for young people. The kinds of projects that kids tackle in afterschool STEM programs also help them build teamwork and communication skills. These are the kinds of skills that our fast-changing modern society needs.  A study of afterschool STEM program evaluations from across the country showed that these kinds of skills are being built in strong afterschool STEM programs (Krishnamurthi, Noam, & Ballard, 2014).

This talking point uses the VALUE of Future Preparation.

Out-of-school programs spark learning and ignite interest by letting children and youth experiment with STEM ideas in real world situations.

Afterschool programs activate learning in science, technology, engineering and math—the subjects called "STEM." Afterschool and summer programs spark learning by letting children and youth experiment with STEM ideas in real-world situations. Such opportunities help spark curiosity, especially for those who might not think of themselves as "math and science kids."

  • Seventy-five percent of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences report that their passion for science was first sparked in non-school environments (Friedman & Quinn, 2006).
  • The more students participate in STEM opportunities after school, the more interested they become in these important subjects (Wai, Lubinski, Benbow, & Steiger, 2010).
  • Participating in afterschool STEM programs can keep the spark of interest in STEM alive during the middle school years, when otherwise, the interest students showed earlier tends to fade out (Bevan, Bell, Stevens, & Razfar, 2012).

This talking point uses the METAPHOR of Activation.

Learning STEM subjects is like learning a new language: to become fluent, children need immersive, hands-on opportunities to practice what they learn.

Afterschool learning helps children and youth become fluent in science, technology, engineering and math—the subjects called "STEM." Just as people need to be immersed in real-world situations to learn a language, children and youth need to explore STEM in their lives outside of the classroom to fully understand and become fluent in these subjects. By working through interesting and practical challenges with STEM methods, tools, or ways of thinking, kids develop a better command of these subjects and can do more with them.

  • Just like language learners benefit from experiencing lots of different real world situations to become conversationally fluent, STEM learners benefit greatly from regular opportunities to develop their skills. A recent study compared 4th-graders who were involved almost daily in hands-on science, both in and after school, with those who only got a chance to participate once or twice a month. The results aren't surprising: the students who were immersed in science had more advanced fluency than those with fewer opportunities (Wai, Lubinski, Benbow, & Steiger, 2010).

 This talking point uses the METAPHOR of Fluency.

Talk about your afterschool STEM program.

Research has found that the public lacks a clear grasp of what happens in non-school educational settings—specifically how these contexts improve STEM knowledge and skills, and, in turn, why afterschool STEM learning is important. Explanatory examples give people a concrete understanding of these processes. How does your afterschool program allow for the kind of immersion that builds fluency? How does it spark interest and activate learning?

Here's some tips for creating your own Explanatory Example:

  1. Don't use examples of individual student success. This approach obscures systemic issues affecting student success, as well as the need for both educator and programmatic supports (e.g. professional development, program quality, administrative coordination, etc.).
  2. Be specific about outcomes. Explicitly explain how features of the program lead to student and community outcomes. Weave in evaluation data where appropriate.
  3. Link to STEM careers. Choose examples of programming with close links to STEM careers when explaining the real-world relevance of informal STEM. But be careful not to frame this in terms of individual achievement or financial success.
  4. Highlight the non-economic benefits. Move people beyond the default recognition of the economic importance of STEM. Talk about how your program teaches transferable skills and has civic benefits!
  5. Stress inclusiveness. Emphasize that all kids — from all backgrounds and of all "types" (not just "math and science" kids) — can participate and succeed in the program.
  6. Feature younger children. The public assumes that STEM (especially engineering and technology) involves advanced subjects that are only appropriate for older youth. Show them that's untrue!

An Explanatory Example with Project GUTS:
In Project GUTS, middle school students from all kinds of backgrounds, including children from rural areas, actively experiment with a computer programming language to create and test models of complex systems, such as the environment, or outbreaks of diseases. These models are then used to run simulations of "what if" scenarios to answer questions about real-world concerns, with local examples to make the learning come to life. For example, as part of a unit on epidemiology, students develop models to test if a disease would spread throughout their local school population given the layout of the school building, the number of students, the movement of the students, the virulence of the disease, and the number of students initially infected. In addition to learning and practicing thinking skills that are important in many subjects, such as testing hypotheses and thinking abstractly, they also develop specific programming skills, such as creating scripts that perform certain tasks automatically. The students leave with a new set of skills for tackling social problems from health to ecology— when asked how they would investigate a community problem, 80 percent suggested using computer modeling and simulation as a technique to investigate the issue. This is a great example of how the need to solve real-world problems builds new skills and a greater ability to use concepts—just like having to get around in a new country helps to develop fluency in a language.

In most cases, we're not taking an immersion approach.

To build fluency in a language, you need to use it often and in lots of different ways. The same applies to building fluency in STEM—it's not enough to do a little here and there. Multiple, connected experiences are important. Right now, in most cases, we're not taking an immersion approach to STEM learning. This should change.

  • There simply aren't enough afterschool opportunities for students to immerse themselves in, whether in STEM or in any other area of learning. We need to expand afterschool programming across the country, and in every state. Right now, existing afterschool programming is only meeting about one third of the need nationwide. That means for every child in an afterschool program, there are two more waiting to get in (Afterschool Alliance, 2014).
  • An in-depth study of afterschool STEM programs in California showed that while the majority of sites reviewed did offer something related to STEM, typically, it was happening less than once a week. Moreover, sites tended to plan out just one session at a time, instead of connecting one experience to the next. This once-in-a-while, one-shot approach doesn't work very well—so we need to support the kinds of afterschool and summer programming that lets learners go deeper—connect ideas to each other, conduct experiments, build models, and so forth (House & Llorente, 2014).

This talking point uses the METAPHOR of Fluency.

Some communities don't have access to enough strong STEM opportunities— there's a lack of fairness across places.

Some communities are filled with opportunities for STEM learning: great libraries and museums, vibrant community gardens, science centers, and a variety of engaging, hands-on afterschool programs. Other communities have fewer opportunities like these, or have other challenges—such as a lack of public transportation—that make them harder for learners to access. If we want shared prosperity across the nation, we need to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, have lots of chances to be exposed to STEM learning out of school. To create greater fairness across places, we need to devote more resources to areas that have fewer high-quality, accessible opportunities.

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (2015) recently conducted an analysis of nationwide student preparation in STEM, and found wide variation across the states. In Massachusetts, the highest-scoring state, one in six students complete and earn at least one advanced high school STEM credit. In Mississippi, the lowest-ranking state, the rate is one in 80 students.
  • If we look state by state, we can see that afterschool opportunities aren't distributed equally from place to place. Some states fund afterschool programs; others don't. Some have initiatives in place that promote quality afterschool; others don't. A few have moved ahead and passed legislation that directly supports afterschool programs; students in most states aren't so lucky.
  • A large study conducted by Nielsen showed that nationally, we are failing to provide afterschool STEM learning in rural areas. Children who live way out in the country, or even just in small towns, are participating in afterschool STEM at about half the rate of urban kids. And by providing fewer opportunities to explore STEM in the afternoon, on the weekends, or in the summer, we are also missing opportunities to make up for the weaker STEM resources in their schools. Rural areas are less likely than America as a whole to offer access to challenging math and science classes, qualified math and science teachers, role models in STEM fields, or community resources such as science museums (Change the Equation, 2012).

 This talking point uses the VALUE of Fairness Across Places.

Use out of school time to immerse students in STEM.

If we want the next generation to be fluent in STEM, we have to take an immersion approach. Just like language learners benefit from being immersed in real world situations to become conversationally fluent, STEM learners benefit greatly from opportunities to practice hands-on application to develop their skills in science, technology, engineering and math.

  • Children of school age spend only 20 percent of their waking hours in school—the other 80 percent is spent outside of school (Banks et al, 2007).
  • Children can discover their passions and pick up new skills as they explore their world in those afterschool hours. To allow for the level of exposure and experiences needed to develop fluency in STEM, we must ensure that all communities offer ways for students to engage with these subjects in multiple and varied ways, in different places and spaces. Taking steps now to ensure that all communities have access to STEM learning resources like afterschool programs, museums, zoos and aquariums, and science centers will increase the opportunities for kids to get immersed in these important subjects. And this afterschool time must be spent doing the kinds of things we know make a difference in fluency: exploring, discovering, and tinkering—learning by doing.

This talking point uses the METAPHOR of Fluency.

Create an infrastructure that helps to build networks and partnerships.

Networks and partnerships can make a real difference in ensuring that learners have access to truly effective, high-quality STEM programs. Supporting networks of afterschool programs and partnerships with STEM-focused organizations is an effective way to expand coordinated opportunities, make sure that good programs keep getting better, and ensure that fledgling programs can learn from more experienced sites.


  • There are many stakeholders in K-12 STEM education including schools, afterschool and summer programs, science centers and museums, libraries, and families. When these stakeholders work together, to intentionally harness their unique contributions, youth in those communities are provided with rich STEM learning experiences.  A study of 15 city and regional collaborations found that these designed educational pathways enabled young people to become engaged, knowledgeable and skilled in the STEM disciplines as they progressed through childhood into adolescence and early adulthood (Traphagen & Traill, 2014).
  • A study of California's afterschool programming found that when an afterschool site had a STEM partner, such as a science museum or a university, the students' experiences tended to be much better in a variety of ways (Lundh, House, Means, & Harris, 2013).

Afterschool Networks

  • State networks that support afterschool programs can make a real difference in growing a thriving ecology of STEM learning opportunities—it's helpful to learn what other states are doing, borrow ideas that are working well elsewhere, and refine your own ideas based on input from people who are in a similar situation to yours. Right now, there is a Statewide Afterschool Network in each of the 50 states. Recently, these networks have also started to come up with projects they can work on together, which amplifies the impact they can have. We can build on this promising direction by building deeper collaborations with state-level STEM education and workforce development networks.
  • When local afterschool efforts are coordinated, more students benefit from programs that fit their interests. A 2013 study of large U.S. cities found that the majority (77 percent) are coordinating the afterschool landscape somehow, which is a great start—but it also means there are many communities where this work isn't happening yet. And, without more intentional support, this emerging infrastructure may be at risk. Over the past five years, a third of cities (34 percent) saw funding for program coordination decrease, and in another quarter (25 percent) of the cities sampled, there was no city funding for afterschool coordination to begin with (Simkin et al., 2013).
  • When cities and counties take a practical, step-by-step approach to making sure that afterschool STEM opportunities are high-quality, well-staffed, and that the families and schools know about them, we all benefit from the sparks of learning that start to fly. A great example of this is the Frontiers in Urban Science Exploration initiative, which uses a model that's worked well in locations across the country (New York City, Providence, Oakland, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and Palm Beach County, FL). These initiatives focus on making programs better, expanding them, and making sure they're sustainable (Argawal & Donner, 2014)—and there are so many different ways of doing this it's hard to sum it up. Perhaps the key ingredient is designated staff who wake up every day thinking about how to make sure there is more STEM learning being activated every day.
  • We need to do a better job of supporting the adults who work in afterschool STEM programs. Because they are building important learning environments, we need to make sure they have the support and scaffolding they need to do their jobs well. This includes the materials and resources necessary for creating hands-on experiences for students, and opportunities to build their own knowledge and skills through professional development, and attractive pay. When we create the kinds of conditions that inspire them to stay in their positions for the long-term, then those adults have the chance to learn more and get better year after year. This, in turn, leads to better experiences for kids—and to more of the STEM learning that our societies need.

This talking point uses the METAPHOR of Ecosystem.

Ensure that all children, no matter where they live, can access afterschool STEM.

Let's make sure every child, regardless of zip code, can be connected to powerful STEM "charging stations." Opportunities to learn are like charging stations where kids power up their ability to take an active role in learning. But not all communities have equal access to STEM resources. For example, some areas have many technology companies or engineering firms that can partner with afterschool programs, while others have few or none. This uneven, patchy network of STEM charging stations is hindering our progress toward widespread STEM fluency. To fix this, we need to fill in the missing connections, plugging in all regions to STEM learning.

  • One practical way to create greater fairness across places is by supporting community asset maps. Because modern society is powered by science, technology, engineering and math, there are STEM learning resources everywhere. However, program leaders might not always know about them, or recognize them as such. For example, one community might not have a local engineering design firm, but they could have a factory where engineers work. Those engineers could serve as mentors or guest speakers, or play other roles in an afterschool STEM program. By systematically mapping out the professionals, companies, organizations and other STEM resources that are present in a community, communities can connect to these science-rich partners and tap into their expertise to enrich afterschool programming. The creation of statewide networks has been one effective way to support communities in creating asset maps and using them to improve STEM learning.

This talking point uses the METAPHOR of Charging Stations and the VALUE of Fairness Across Places.

Find ways to include all young people in rich STEM learning.

Traditionally, there have been fewer young women and fewer young people of color who pursue STEM majors in college or go on to STEM professions. To build and maintain our nation's shared prosperity, we need to expand our pool of STEM talent and we can't afford to leave anyone out. Because afterschool programs have the flexibility to respond to young people's interests and cultures, and because hands-on, exploratory experiences are known to be effective ways to turn young people on to new interests, afterschool STEM is an essential resource for including groups of kids who might not otherwise consider these fields. By expanding afterschool STEM, we can engage more girls, more African Americans, and more Hispanic youth in these critical, growing areas. Immersing and including all students in STEM learning leaves us all better off in the long run.

  • To build and maintain our shared prosperity, and to take advantage of the opportunities ahead, we need to ramp up the numbers of young people who are equipped to move into these fields. To do that, we need to include everybody. That isn't happening now. For instance, women make up about half of the workforce (46.8 percent) but only a less than a third (29.9 percent) of the STEM workforce. There's a similar trend for African Americans and Hispanics, in that they participate in the STEM professions at about half the rate you'd predict based on their proportion of the workforce (NSF & NCSE, 2015). Think about that: all these workers are heading off to other areas, fields that may be stagnant or declining, while at the same time, we know we have STEM shortages ahead of us. To be ready for what's ahead, we have to engage groups in STEM that have been underrepresented in the past.
  • Afterschool programming already reaches a substantial proportion of groups who are underrepresented in STEM fields—24 percent of African American kids in the US, and 29 percent of Hispanic youth (Afterschool Alliance, 2014). If we want to activate STEM learning among more children of color, we know where to find them! The task now is to make sure that we have enough programs that let kids explore and experiment, because that's what sparks their interest and keeps it fueled.