The ACPHS Academy, a STEM after-school program of New York's Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (ACPHS), enrolls inner-city students in grades 3–12.
After-school science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs are offered at many schools around the country, but most involve just a few grade levels and are run by the schools. However, some after-school STEM programs proving beneficial to students—especially underserved students—are held by colleges or universities for local students from elementary through high school levels. “There is a strong body of research that says getting students excited about learning at a young age will positively impact their career interests and decisions later in life. Our approach is to begin with students in the third grade, work on building their core STEM skills through elementary and middle school, and continue to nurture their development through high school,” explains Rebecca Beach, director of the ACPHS Academy, a program of New York’s Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (ACPHS).
Every fall, the ACPHS Academy enrolls a class of 20 third graders from Albany’s inner city, and that class continues together in the program through high school. “The hope is that these students will pursue careers in STEM-related fields, but more importantly, we want to see them graduate from high school, attend college, and enjoy successful and productive careers,” Beach maintains. “We are even committed to offering a scholarship to our school for any student who successfully completes the program, applies, and is accepted by the college.”
In the SMILE (Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences) Program, offered in Oregon and Rhode Island, students begin attending in the fourth grade and can continue through 12th grade. “SMILE clubs meet weekly throughout the school year for integrated math and science activities designed to build a cohort of interested and excited students,” says Carol Englander, SMILE’s director at the University of Rhode Island (URI) in Kingston. “By maintaining the continuity of students’ exposure to and support for learning science and math, we are creating a clear pathway to higher education for motivated and prepared students,” she adds.
“We are just beginning to appreciate and articulate what students gain at each stage” of the pipeline to higher education, observes Ryan Collay, SMILE’s assistant director at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis. At the elementary level, the program focuses “on fun, a community, enhancing interests, getting students to see how increased knowledge helps them understand the natural world, how developing their math skills is fun,” he explains. At the middle level, “we add role models, a sense of community where school is cool, where you gain power and influence because you know something, developing contextual team-based challenges that link [students’] problem-solving abilities to making a difference.”
In high school, says Collay, “we add increased responsibility and capacity, a sense that each person brings to the table a valuable set of skills—a diverse set. We develop the context, the systems thinking, and add this to more ideas for college and careers. And of course, the pragmatics of being college-ready. But the most important step is seeing oneself as ‘college material.’”
The ACPHS Academy reinforces the idea of being “college material” by busing students to and from the college’s campus, so they are literally “going to college.” The program provides meals for them on campus, and ACPHS hosts “special events [for them], such as our annual science fair,” says Beach.
SMILE students visit OSU for what Collay calls “‘College Connection’ events, such as our middle school Engineering Design Challenge, or the high school event [in which] they learn about a topic in ocean science and apply their knowledge to an issue or concern.”
At URI, elementary students “attend the three-day Elementary Outdoor Science Adventure camp, where they engage in environmental project-based learning activities. SMILE middle and high school students attend the Engineering Challenge Weekend, [during which] they are mentored by URI engineering professors and engineering majors,” explains Englander.
Student mentors play key roles in these programs. At the ACPHS Academy, students benefit from “a mentor who can answer questions and help steer them along in their projects. It’s like having 15 additional teachers in the classroom,” contends Beach.
Students “also get the chance to talk to their mentors about the college experience. They get the opportunity to experience a real college campus setting early on,” says mentor Chelsea Travis, a second-year pharmacy student.
What do students gain from these programs? “The demands of the school day mean that teachers and students do not always have the opportunities to get into hands-on, real-life exploration of STEM concepts and ideas. At the Academy, we provide the time, space, and materials needed to do just that,” responds Beach.
SMILE offers “a club atmosphere where participants feel valued and supported. Additionally, students appreciate learning and education, so there is a culture of inquiry and ambition. Unlike the regular school day, the focus is on the learning process rather than the end result, such as test scores,” Englander contends.
Students “learn that their interests in science and mathematics are something they share in common,” says Collay. “And foundational for our students is the sense of membership in something that matters…a place, as one of our students noted, ‘where it is okay to be smart’.”
While much “of informal learning does not intentionally link to classroom learning,” he adds, in SMILE, “in part by design and in larger part by the role of classroom teachers as club advisors, we intentionally link the learning…to the classroom. For if we can provide a reason, a context for learning, for the application of skills and knowledge gained in the classroom, we have improved the classroom learning through the club experience.”
Students also benefit from SMILE’s teachers, who “act as coaches in that they track student grades and intervene if necessary, make sure students take four years of college-track math and science in high school, and assist with college applications,” Englander notes.
SMILE and the ACPHS Academy reward teachers with stipends. In addition, “SMILE Teacher Leaders participate in professional development workshops three times per year to learn new science and math curriculum,” says Englander. SMILE provides teachers with interactive, hands-on learning modules that have been tested, and SMILE staff members and “URI resource faculty provide an ongoing support system that will help teachers to improve content knowledge and pedagogy, connect real-life experiences to curriculum activities, and increase their professional confidence and competence,” she points out.
“We are also very supportive of educators as professionals,” affirms Collay. “Some of our discussions address concerns they face in learning about new things,” such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), he notes. “In many ways, [the NGSS] are strategies we have [already] used: systems and computational thinking, problem-based learning, engineering design, and of course, inquiry in interdisciplinary and contextual learning environments…So [SMILE teachers] are well ahead of the curve as far as the intent and philosophy of the new framework: It links up nicely with our program framework.”
“When I was hired as a science teacher 20 years ago, the principal expected me to take on the SMILE program,” remarks Ken Dickey of Nyssa High School in Nyssa, Oregon. “I was happy to do so because I knew it would give me a chance to be valuable to students outside of the classroom. As a stranger coming into the school, I knew it would be important to make connections with students beyond the school day.”
“We have collaborated with [more than] 350 teachers and reached [more than] 7,500 students from small/rural communities underrepresented in higher education in Oregon” over the past 26 years, Collay estimates. “Of these students, 85% are from underrepresented minority groups, with the balance [being] first–generation, low-income white students. Since our inception, [more than] 60% of our students have been female.”
Englander notes that the more time students spend in SMILE clubs, the more likely they are to graduate high school, attend college, and major in STEM fields.
Over the past two years that data is available, says Beach, 87% of ACPHS Academy students received the highest possible score on New York’s fourth-grade science exam. In comparison, only 44% of students in the Albany City School District and only 54% of all students in New York’s public schools attained this benchmark.