Invest in afterschool STEM programs to prepare the medical science leaders of tomorrow

By Kenny Riley,

As vaccine-laden trucks roll across the United States, it is impossible to miss the vital role that scientific research has played in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We can thank scientists, technicians and researchers for the tiny vials of vaccine headed toward our biceps to save hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives.

This scientific breakthrough — like so many others — may well have begun in an after-school classroom. With adequate funding for after-school programs, we give future leaders room to explore their career options.

As an educator at Carole Robertson Center for Learning, I see first-hand how children are engaged and energized by the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math), leading to careers that are essential to improving long-term community health and wellbeing. It’s why after-school programs in Illinois and elsewhere have focused so heavily on the STEM fields in recent years. We know after-school programs are uniquely suited to the kinds of sleeves-rolled-up activities so key to STEM education.

Pre-pandemic, many after-school students spent busy afternoons building robots, learning computer coding, investigating soil conditions for community gardens they were planting and more. Since COVID-19 struck, the added challenges of delivering meals to families and supporting distance learning haven’t stopped the indispensable after-school STEM curriculum. At Carole Robertson Center for Learning, we have continued to adapt and find ways to safely engage youth in fun STEM activities such as drones and woodworking.

And parents report the effort is paying off. In the recently released America After 3 p.m. survey, the After-school Alliance found 90 percent of Illinois parents are satisfied with their child’s after-school program. But it’s a too-limited opportunity.

That same survey found that nationally, for every child in an after-school program, the parents of three more are unable to find a program. Here in Illinois, it is even worse: for every child in an after-school program, four more are still looking for a slot.

Survey respondents also recognize the role that after-school programs play in supporting the economy. For instance, 81 percent of parents with children in an after-school program agree these programs help them keep their job or work more hours. And 82 percent of parents overall (with or without children in after school) agree after-school programs provide working parents peace of mind.

That’s because an overwhelming majority of respondents — 91 percent — recognize that after-school programs provide a safe environment for children. As the pandemic’s grip on our economy loosens, that aspect of after school will be all the more crucial, since it will allow parents to work in the afternoons, freed from worries about unsupervised children.

Parents recognize both the educational value and economic impact of after-school programming. Doubtless that’s the reason 89% of Illinois survey respondents recognize the need for and lend their support to public funding that addresses the acute shortage of after-school programming.

Not all our children are headed for careers in the STEM fields, of course. But all of them will need at least a baseline understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math. Funding critical STEM learning today, and making sure families have ready access to after-school programming in all our communities, is a smart way to nurture tomorrow’s essential scientific leaders.

• Kenny Riley is an afterschool ambassador for the Afterschool Alliance and the Director of Out of School Time programs at Carole Robertson Center for Learning.

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