Afterschool Focus: STEM

It is no secret that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is a popular but daunting topic for afterschool practitioners. Job forecasts show that there are professional opportunities in these fields, but many students—especially young women and minorities—do not have exposure to STEM opportunities or do not express interest in these areas.1 Many afterschool programs have turned their focus to boosting student achievement through STEM, and these efforts have yielded results. Afterschool STEM programs have been associated with several positive outcomes for students:

  • Improved attitudes toward STEM fields and careers
  • Increased STEM knowledge and skills
  • Higher likelihood of graduation and pursuit of a STEM career2

What Is STEM?

STEM is not just an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The National Science Foundation and other organizations refer to STEM as a “meta-discipline” that combines these subject areas. Some organizations have incorporated the arts, as well, to offer what is referred to as STEAM activities. This integrated approach is designed to transform classrooms into inquiry-based, problem-solving discovery zones where children engage with content to find solutions to problems.3 Expanded and informal learning opportunities provide an ideal space in which to explore STEM (or STEAM) learning.4

The Afterschool Advantage

Afterschool programs can boost students’ interest and achievement in STEM simply by increasing their exposure to this approach.5 The 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science showed that 8th and 12th graders who participated in “science-related activities outside of school” showed greater increases in test scores compared to their peers who did not participate in these activities.6

Afterschool programs also provide an opportunity for students to develop a self-image as someone who is proficient in STEM. Some experts have cited a lack of a STEM “identity,” or an inability to see themselves in a specific profession as a deterrent to students taking STEM classes and ultimately pursuing careers in these fields. Afterschool programs can provide a safe, supportive environment in which students can explore, take risks, and develop a self-image linked to STEM. Integrating college and career readiness activities into STEM programming can further support students' self-confidence in STEM by providing opportunities for students to meet STEM professionals of similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds, allowing them to envision STEM opportunities and careers for themselves.

Finally, remember that there are broader benefits from afterschool programs that can support increased interest and achievement in STEM. High-quality afterschool programs have been associated with improved self-perception, behavior, attendance, and academic achievement. These improvements will leave any student better positioned to achieve in school.7

Implementing and Sustaining High-Quality STEM Programming

If you’re just getting started with STEM activities in your 21st CCLC, the good news is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. As interest in promoting STEM opportunities and skills among K–12 students has grown, so has the number of resources, including those tailored specifically for expanded-learning programs. Free, online lesson resources include

If you are already offering STEM activities in your 21st CCLC, focus on continuous improvement. Now is the time to go from once-a-week STEM demonstrations to integrated, hands-on, problem-based activities that connect to students’ daily lives. In addition, collaborate with school-day teachers to ensure afterschool activities are aligned with lessons and standards. If you want to focus more on college and career readiness, Illinois Pathways, a new and innovative State of Illinois–led STEM education initiative, offers the STEM Learning Exchange. These partnerships coordinate investments, resources, and planning among employers and education partners across P–20 education and workforce systems.

Focusing on continuous improvement also includes providing professional development for your staff.

Wherever you are in the process of implementing and refining STEM programming, remember the practice that applies to all areas of afterschool: have fun!


1 Howard-Brown, Martinez, & Times, 2012.

2 Krishnamurthi, Ballard, Noam, 2014.

3 Fioriello, 2010.

4 SEDL, 2014.

5 Wai et al.

6 Krishnamurthi et al, 2014.

7 Krishnamurthi et al, 2014.


Fioriello, P. (2010, November). Understanding the basics of STEM education. Retrieved from

Howard-Brown, B., Martinez, D., & Times, C. (2012, May). Engaging Diverse Learners Through the Provision of STEM Education Opportunities. Southeast Comprehensive Center Briefing Paper. Austin, TX: SEDL. Retrieved from

Krishnamurthi, A., Ballard, M., & Noam, G. (2014). Examining the impact of afterschool STEM programs. Washington, DC: Afterschool Alliance. Retrieved from

SEDL. (2014). STEM XXI Position Statement. Austin, TX: Author. Retrieved from 

Wai, J., Lubinski, D., Benbow, C. P., & Steiger, J. H. (2010). Accomplishment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and its relation to STEM educational dose. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 860–871.