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Communities Play Valuable Role in STEM Education
By John Freeman Posted:September 19, 2013 0 Comments
Most people interested in American education already know the worrying statistics about the current state of STEM education. The United States places 25th in mathematics and 17th in science compared to other countries, and only 16 percent of graduating high school students are both proficient in math and interested in entering one of the STEM fields. For the past 10 years, educators have sought to close these gaps, and America's public schools have undertaken the bulk of the work in getting the next generation of students back on track in STEM subjects and passionate about pursuing them as future career choices. But education cannot happen in a vacuum, and students are not only educated during the hours when school is in session. After all, students spend over 70 percent of their waking hours not in school. To this end, many community organizations are providing STEM learning opportunities for students so that STEM education happens wherever students happen to be.

One ubiquitous organization that has the opportunity to assist in STEM education is local public libraries. Long known for helping students with reading, literacy, and homework, many public libraries are now expanding their offerings to help bridge the STEM gap. For instance, the Anne Arundel County Public Library in Annapolis, Maryland is offering STEM-based programming for students of all ages at each of its 15 branches during the back-to-school season from September to November. In addition, it hopes to continue these offerings for years to come. By supplementing existing science and math education, public libraries can offer services that allow students to receive more hands-on experience with problem solving. Additionally, public libraries are also a valuable resource for homeschooled children who may have an interest STEM but lack access to STEM developments occurring in the formal school system. Also, libraries are perfectly suited for allowing students to explore subjects that interest them to their fullest extent. After all, students that learn about subjects that interest them are more likely to stay passionate about those fields for later. Perhaps this can help steer some of the 75 percent of students that abandon math and science after high school into increased study of these fields as their interests have been sparked at both the elementary and high school ages.

Community clubs for youth also offer the opportunity to expand STEM education outside the classroom. The Boys and Girls Club of Mercer County in New Jersey recently developed a STEM Education and Career Exploration program to help expose young people to new ideas in STEM learning. Further, the Boys and Girls Club hopes that this initiative will provide both college-bound and work-bound graduating seniors with the tools they will need to function in a world that increasingly relies on STEM-based information. Community groups have a two-fold advantage in providing STEM education programming. First, community clubs tend to be run by the people from that community. Through this, students can become familiar with individuals from their areas that are passionate about STEM subjects, showing students the future possibilities for someone like themselves. Second, community organizations have a flexibility that institutions do not often possess. Therefore, they can more directly meet the needs of the students they work with. If their passions for helping you in their area can be harnessed for STEM-based learning, these groups could be powerful partners in leveling the STEM playing field.

Perhaps the largest outside of the classroom support for STEM education can come from parents. By being an active presence in their children's lives, parents can help guide students and foster their interest in the STEM subjects. Many parents may find becoming a champion of STEM to be challenging; after all, many parents may not have been the best science and math students when they were in school. However, with the support of local school systems and STEM organizations across the country, all parents can access valuable resources that can help them help their children. While the role of parents has long been seen as an important part of the educational health of a child, some states are now taking this precept a step further. Oklahoma recently hosted a statewide conference focused on STEM education that included parents as part of the discussion. Family participation predicts a student's success almost twice as well as their socioeconomic level. The importance of parental involvement cannot be overstated. By incorporating these valuable allies into the STEM education debate, educators can gain valuable allies that have a direct window into the students they hope to reach.

Community partnerships do not mean that schools are doing a bad job with STEM education. Rather, it points to the growing realization that education is not just an activity that happens from when students enter the front doors until the final bell rings. Instead, education is a community responsibility that has stakeholders far beyond the local school district. By leveraging the interest, passion, and involvement of all of these people, STEM education will have the best chance it has had in years of making a marked and lasting influence on the future of America's students.