08/16/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2013

Summer Learning & STEM Momentum

With summer coming to an end, and back to school season fast approaching, now is the time for STEM educators, advocates and funders to champion the vital role that summer learning programs play in our efforts to improve year-round STEM education in California.
To that end, CSLNet and other STEM leaders across California are proud to be part of Summer Matters, the statewide campaign chaired by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson that's dedicated to expanding access to high quality summer learning opportunities for every California student. This summer, Summer Matters made important progress helping students make great strides in STEM learning and supporting educators in innovating new approaches to STEM teaching.

With more curriculum and scheduling flexibility, and fewer testing pressures, high quality summer learning programs are opportune for engaging students and teachers in the kind of inquiry-based learning that is fundamental to the new Common Core Math and Next Generation Science Standards. Summer learning programs are also forging creative new collaborations and partnerships to deliver high quality and highly engaging hands-on STEM learning activities that are as enjoyable for students to take part in as they are for teachers to design and lead.

While there are hundreds of high quality summer STEM programs succeeding all over California, a new and noteworthy program is gaining momentum here in Silicon Valley -engaging the very heart of the tech industry.

Summer Matters, the Franklin McKinley School District, Catholic Charities, Techbridge and the Partnership for Children and Youth provided Kennedy Elementary School students in San Jose with high-quality, hands-on STEM summer learning by replicating a model that has produced outstanding results in Oakland Unified and Mount Diablo Unified School Districts.
Like the Oakland and Mount Diablo programs, Kennedy's STEM summer learning program featured a highly successful activity-based curriculum with engaging lesson plans, field trips, science fairs and other experiential STEM learning activities that are fun, motivating and ideal for the summer months.

High quality summer learning programs such as these, that combine enrichment, recreation and academics and are delivered through partnerships between schools and community-based organizations, have been proven to strengthen students' academic skills, confidence and readiness to learn. They are also terrific complements and bridges to afterschool STEM programs such as those supported through efforts like the Power of Discovery: STEM2, a partnership between the California Afterschool Network and my organization, the California STEM Learning Network with participation from the California Department of Education. Kennedy serves as one of several hundred sites participating in this statewide effort, offering students the potential to engage in high quality STEM learning experiences year round.

In measuring the STEM programs' effectiveness in Oakland and Mount Diablo, almost all participating students reported increased interest and engagement with science, reporting that the program taught them new things (94%), made science more interesting (93%) and more fun (92%), and made them more excited to do science activities (86%) and want to learn more about science (85%). A solid majority even reported that the program made them more interested in a pursuing a career in science.

Not only did the program support student skills, it also built staff and teacher skills by giving them the training and practice with project-based learning and STEM content. The overwhelming reaction from summer staff was excitement about taking these new skills and experiences into the school year. They saw first-hand how engaged their students are and how much impact active learning can have on students' skills and knowledge. Evaluation results confirm the anecdotal evidence, with the vast majority of summer science staff reporting that they strengthened their ability and confidence to teach science lessons and informal science activities in summer and after school, increased their confidence in teaching STEM topics and their knowledge of STEM curriculum, and increased their tendency to "welcome questions from children and youth" when leading science activities.

Adopting Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards will require new collaborations, flexibility and a deep commitment to experimentation and innovation, and high quality summer learning programs are delivering on those fronts. Now that summer learning season is starting to winding down, it's time to look to STEM summer learning programs' successes as we continue to advance high quality STEM teaching and learning year-round.