10/02/2015 10:08 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2016

Summer Programs Enhance STEM Learning

We live in a world filled with acronyms, and public education may be one of the worst offenders when it comes to a confusing alphabet soup of terms that only a portion of the population can understand. One that deserves more clarity, however, is STEM - aka Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. These content areas include some of the most important skills for students to learn and master in order to take advantage of careers in the 21st Century economy.

We know that workforces in STEM-related occupations are projected to grow at rates as much as double those in non-STEM fields, and that anticipated lifetime earnings are nearly 20% higher for holders of STEM degrees when compared to their non-STEM counterparts. We also know that even "traditional" occupations will continue to shift their requirements toward higher levels of STEM skills as workplace technology, data, and logistics continue to advance. Finally, we know that the elementary and middle school years represent the prime opportunity zone to ensure that all Californians are on a path toward STEM achievement, before the effects of the opportunity gap widen and leave many of our low-income students significantly behind. Quality secondary and post-secondary STEM education is a serious need for California's workforce--but making sure that all students enter their teen and adult years with equal opportunities for higher STEM learning needs to come first.

Fortunately, the state has approved new standards for math and science, and these standards create strong momentum to bring STEM alive in every classroom in California. The California Department of Education is also working to build an intentional connection between STEM in the classroom and STEM in after school and summer programs. This commitment by state leadership to bring STEM content to life in expanded learning settings offers an opportunity to scale up the successful approach to exploratory, hands-on STEM learning demonstrated in an innovative project carried out in four Bay Area school districts over the last three summers. In the Summer Science Project, setting STEM learning in the context of summer programs helped to provide an atmosphere in which students felt free to critically reflect on their own learning, engage in hands-on trial and error, and build collaborative approaches to inquiry: all key components of successful science education. This confidence in experimental processes and group study was summed up by Sophia, one of the more than 600 participating students, who said: "That's what a scientist does, they fail! So, you have to just keep trying; it's okay to get help."

Evaluation data from the Summer Science Project shows that this approach produced significant, cost-effective results for Sophia and hundreds of her fellow students, using existing public funding streams to support and complement school-day STEM learning goals with fun, hands-on learning activities during the summer. The net result was a boost of STEM confidence and enthusiasm that had kids returning to their regular school-year science classes saying, "Oh, I know this, we did this in summer camp."

The Summer Science Project worked with state-funded summer learning programs in Oakland Unified School District, Mt. Diablo Unified School District, and the Franklin-McKinley School District and San Jose CORAL program (both in San Jose). Led by the Partnership for Children & Youth (PCY) with curriculum support provided by Techbridge, the project made clear that low-cost, youth-focused summer programming can play a significant role in building students' interest and aptitude for STEM learning, forming part of a more comprehensive approach to preparing youth for the technical and scientific demands of the 21st century workplace.

In the Summer Science Project, Sophia's enthusiasm was widely shared, with 9 out of 10 students reporting that the project made science more fun and interesting. More than 80% also reported wanting to learn more about science, both in regular school-day settings and outside of school. Three-quarters even reported sharing their new science skills with their families. Teachers and school administrators confirmed the program's effectiveness: "Because of that summer experience, the kids were really motivated and the level of learning was much higher. The teachers were pushing to get their kids into the program because they knew how beneficial it was for them academically."The Summer Science Project demonstrates that California's nearly decade-long, largest-in-the-nation investment in after school and summer programs can pay real dividends in terms of the 21st century skills our students need. These programs can provide a highly cost-effective and scalable approach to enhance STEM learning both during and beyond the school day.

To learn more about the Summer STEM Project, visit In addition, the California Department of Education, along with the CDE Foundation is hosting the annual statewide STEM Symposium in Anaheim this October, where educators and other partners can learn about all sorts of in-school and out-of-school strategies to creatively and effectively bring STEM learning to children across California. To learn more, go to .

This piece would not be possible without the efforts of my co-author, Michael Funk, Director CDE Afterschool Division.