In Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, groups of elementary school students are staying after school to build trebuchets—slinging devices based on a timeless piece of medieval engineering wizardry. Using milk jugs, yardsticks, rubber bands, and other inexpensive materials, these young engineers are challenged to build a functional throwing machine.
Fun, hands-on science and engineering learning experiences like this are taking shape in out-of-school settings across the country.
Minnesota is one of eight states participating in Taking the National Partnerships for AfterSchool Science to Scale (NPASS2), an informal science education initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Using the Design It! and Explore It! curricula developed at EDC in earlier NSF projects, NPASS2 provides ongoing training and support for afterschool professionals in leading extended, enjoyable, and meaningful scientific explorations with young learners.
“The most important thing is to get young students excited about science and engineering,” says EDC’s Charlie Hutchison. “When students get curious and excited about science early on, they’re more likely to take—and stick with—higher level courses at school and more likely to consider science as a career option.”
NPASS2 works in areas where the classroom teachers may not have the time, resources, or training for high-quality, hands-on science. Almost 100 science trainers in eight states have been trained to provide informal science programming in more than 500 locations, such as afterschool programs in schools, community centers, libraries, YMCAs, and 4-H clubs.
“Girls, African American and Latino children, and children from all low socioeconomic groups are underrepresented in higher levels of science study,” Hutchison says. “NPASS2 aims to re-engage them before they get irreversibly shut out of the science track at school and thus from the lucrative STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] economy of the 21st century.”
Teachers in the Minnesota program find these hands-on activities also engage learners with special needs. “Most of the students I have with IEPs [individualized education programs] are very hands-on oriented learners,” says science teacher Bridgette Turner. “NPASS2 lent itself to their learning style wonderfully.” And the program has also proven surprisingly effective with youth involved in the Maryland juvenile justice system.
Students aren’t the only ones benefiting. Afterschool administrators and staff receive continuous professional training in how to guide frontline staff and students through the learning activities.
Afterschool programs are largely staffed by graduate students, volunteers, and elementary school teachers says Hutchison. “We have found that when afterschool staff pursue high-quality professional development, they can become successful afterschool science leaders. And better trained and more confident teachers are always good for children.”
Originally published on April 29, 2011