From 2006 to 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) provided seed funding for Academies for Young Scientists (AYS) programs, which expose K–12 students to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) out-of-school time experiences to encourage them to consider STEM careers. Typically AYS programs have been partnerships involving school districts, universities, community colleges, informal science education venues, businesses, community organizations, and government agencies. Several AYS programs have continued beyond the NSFAYS funding period. One of them is Project GUTS (Growing Up Thinking Scientifically), a summer and after-school program for middle school students based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and serving New Mexico.
“We offer an academically enriching club for middle school students after school [and] teacher professional development in using cutting-edge tools and techniques for integrating STEM and computing,” says principal investigator Irene Lee of the Santa Fe Institute, the nonprofit independent research and education center that hosts Project GUTS. The program “has also been innovative in offering complex systems, computer science, and computational modeling content at the middle school level,” Lee notes. “Students learned to design and create models of complex systems working in small groups or individually.”
Students also “were able to analyze complex systems models,” and an exit survey showed many believed “they had developed specific programming skills such as finding the blocks (instructions) needed to create a program, adding variables to a model, and making graphs,” says Lee. Students also “adopted a complex systems perspective when looking at new scientific phenomena or community issues.”
Teachers who served as club leaders grew “in the understanding and modeling of complex systems [as] evidenced by their completion of computational science projects during the Summer Teacher Institutes and professional development workshops offered by Project GUTS,” she points out. Teachers said the program helped them “develop new teaching strategies (93%), develop new ideas for activities and curriculum (96%), develop new insights into student thinking and learning (96%), exercise leadership with their colleagues (68%), and develop new relationships or partnerships that can be built upon in the future (96%),” according to Lee.
After the funding period, Project GUTS sustained the program by “enhancing existing partnerships and creating new partnerships, including partnerships with other NSF-funded programs; procuring private foundation and state funding; developing a network of educators who are passionate about the program and have accepted the challenge of taking on new leadership roles; and developing a brand and a reputation,” she explains. “Finding new funding sources both during and after the period of NSF funding allowed Project GUTS to expand its program geographically and to provide necessary supports to accommodate future growth.”
East Bay Academy for Young Scientists (EBAYS)
Hosted by the Lawrence Hall of Science at University of California, Berkeley, EBAYS “provides opportunities for students to learn and apply inquiry skills in the context of addressing real-world problems. Such opportunities are often not available through engagement in curriculum presented at their schools,” notes program director Kevin Cuff. During summers and after school, “students are engaged in hands-on inquiry skills building lessons and technology-enabled authentic scientific investigations related to highly relevant topics, such as environmental quality. While conducting these investigations, students collect and analyze data and report their findings to public audiences,” he explains. “Students learn important content and skills, experience a true integration of [STEM], and develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of STEM as a tool that can be used to address relevant issues,” while the program’s model “provides teachers with an example of how to integrate STEM components, and how to present STEM in such a way that it becomes more relevant to students,” says Cuff.
Research has shown “70% of students surveyed who have engaged in EBAYS activities have developed a greater understanding of the process of STEM inquiry,” he reports. The data reveals 72% reported greater confidence “as STEM practitioners” and that they feel better prepared for school-based STEM coursework as a result of their participation. “Other efficacy data indicates that student interest in STEM increases through program-related experiences, reflected by the fact that a significant number (72%) of EBAYS students report that they ‘would like to study more science in the future’ as a result of their participation,” Cuff observes.
After the grant period, this data “resulted in...very convincing evidence in support of expanded use of the EBAYS model,” he says. “Experience gained through execution of the project resulted in revision of model components and the development of new, more effective elements. Such evidence and prior successful experience has been used in making extremely strong arguments for resource allocation from foundations, as well as state and local education agencies.”
In Massachusetts, Franklin County Research Academies for Young Scientists (STEM RAYS) provided science research programs for students in grades 4–8 in after-school and summer programs. Morton Sternheim, the program’s principal investigator, says STEM RAYS gave students and teachers “an opportunity to do original, creative research” with five interdisciplinary environmental research programs, providing them with authentic science experiences and opportunities to work with scientists, engineers, and college and graduate students. The environmental research programs were The Arsenic Project, Pioneer Valley Watershed Studies, Weather RATS (Research and Tracking Systems), Air Quality, and Birds. “This is research you can’t do in a typical school context. It’s a very powerful experience for students,” Sternheim points out.
“The basic model works very well,” he notes. The teachers are trained in September, and starting in October, they meet once a week with the students. “Teachers return for training once a month…At the end of May, we have a big scientific conference with the families, and the kids do presentations.” A key feature of the program is “the coupling of teachers with varying degrees of scientific background to a university teacher [for a] valuable professional development experience,” he emphasizes.
“The kids were very excited,” he reports. “The kids had to volunteer to participate: No one made them stay. Many stayed two, three, or four years.” He calls the program “a great example of how academic researchers can bring a topic down to the level of schools.”
After the NSFAYS grant period ended, STEM RAYS was funded by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s STEM Pipeline Fund. Now several STEM RAYS clubs are continuing to run using funds from the colleges involved (The University of Massachusetts Amherst and Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Massachusetts), he explains. STEM RAYS has just submitted a proposal to NSF for additional funding.