Many people lack a clear grasp of what happens in non-school educational settings and adults have often never experienced the innovative and dynamic afterschool and summer STEM programs that exist today. Telling a descriptive, intentionally framed program story—or an “Explanatory Example”—gives people a concrete understanding of how learning happens. It offers the opportunity to show how afterschool and summer learning works and why it’s so powerful: it is about creating opportunities and contexts for youth to follow their spark, building real STEM skills, and helping students connect STEM to their lives and communities. Whether you’re crafting a program description for a brochure, website copy, blog post, or presentation, use these guidelines to create an effective Explanatory Example:
- Do not tell “hero stories.” Individual stories tend to limit—rather than expand—people’s understanding of the larger systemic factors that contribute to or block student success. Furthermore, they tend to attribute a person’s success to that person’s actions, choices, or character alone, and therefore do not build support for system-level solutions (i.e. afterschool and summer STEM programs).
- Be specific about how programs accomplish outcomes. Because people lack a concrete grasp of learning in non-school environments, it is important to be specific about how a program works and how the program’s activities connect to changes in outcomes. Weave in the recommended metaphors to explain how cognitive skills develop and learning happens in many settings. Answer the questions: How does your afterschool STEM program allow for the kind of immersion that builds fluency? How does your summer STEM spark interest and activate learning?
- Take care in using data. Program evaluation or participant outcome data can support your program’s story, but don’t lead with it and ensure that it doesn’t stand alone. Data should only be used to enhance and support an overall explanatory approach. For example, it’s not enough to just say “87 percent of participants increased their confidence in using STEM tools.” Make sure you’ve created a context that first answers questions, such as: How did youth gain that confidence? What kinds of activities did they do and what tools did they use? What STEM skills did they practice?
- Feature non-economic benefits. To move people beyond the default recognition of the economic importance of STEM, explain how afterschool and summer STEM learning also teaches transferable skills and has civic benefits.
- Connect to STEM careers. Choose examples of programming with close links to STEM careers when explaining the real-world relevance of afterschool and summer STEM. It supports productive thinking about how programs can expose children to careers and prepare them to make societal contributions. Do not, however, frame exposure to careers in terms of individual achievement or financial success.
- Stress inclusivity. Emphasize that all kids — from all backgrounds and of all “types” (not just “math and science” kids) — can participate in the program. This is important for overcoming the default understanding that STEM is only for certain kids.
- Highlight accessible learning environments. If part of your program happens outside of a traditional science lab or classroom, describing this can help people more easily understand how afterschool and summer programs are successful at inclusivity. Locating STEM in an atypical environment, like a community garden, is particularly powerful.
- Feature younger children. Because the public assumes that STEM (especially engineering and technology) involves advanced subjects that are only appropriate for older youth, communicators should include highlights from programs for elementary and middle school children. Make a clear connection to how early learning supports later development and success.