Feature Story

Bridging the STEM Summer Learning Gap

by Mary Ann Azevedo

A look at how camps, programs and apps help students keep their STEM skills fresh.

For most students, summer is a time of carefree play, fun and lazy days. However, research shows that there is a price to be paid for taking an annual break from education.  This is particularly true of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills. Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months, according to research presented by the National Summer Learning Association.

The United States ranks 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations, according to the Department of Education. Only 16 percent of high school seniors are proficient in these subjects and interested in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) career.

Perhaps more startling, more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities, the association said. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.

James Brown, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based STEM Education Coalition, notes that addressing the summer learning gap is becoming a bigger priority for educators, companies and parents with each passing year.

“Everybody recognizes the summer learning gap. There’s an array of things that parents are doing, including some that are STEM-focused,” he said. “If you miss out on it, kids are definitely coming back in the fall with a deficit. As such, the number of STEM-related summer programs is going through the roof.”

The STEM education community and employers are recognizing that the informal STEM learning space – which takes place outside of the traditional classroom environment during the school year – is “having a big impact on lots of different outcomes.”

“There are increasing degrees of sophistication in after-school and summer STEM-related programs,” he said. “Even businesses are recognizing that an informal environment is a good investment to keep kids in school and give kids a connection to a company or an employer.” More efforts are made to create summer internships for students, for example.

An array of classes and camps nationwide are designed so that the STEM field serves as a “backdrop for having fun,” Brown said. “This is a field that lends itself to less rules and more room for innovation.”

One such program was established in 2013 at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. The college established a free STEM Summer Camp program for current high school and middle school students. The campus is turned into a “living laboratory” where a variety of science and engineering concepts are introduced.

The high school camp consists of ten topics including forensic technology and building a radio and is offered over four weeks. The middle school camp consists of two topics – 3D Printing and Robotics - offered over two weeks.  All sessions are primarily hands-on and are taught by Foothill college faculty and high school faculty, according to camp coordinator Oxana Pantchenko.

The program has been so successful so far with 540 students participating this past session.

“Next year our plan is to expand to 1,000 seats,” Pantchenko said.

In mid-July 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill called the STEM Education Act (H.R. 5031) developed by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  The bill, among other things, would broaden the definition of STEM subjects to address related fields like computer science as well as expand programs at the National Science Foundation to support informal STEM education activities, such as summer programs.

Brown said the bill is evidence of the growing emphasis on informal STEM education.

Encouraging STEM-related summer activities for younger children is important because learning such skills at a young age can help set the foundation for later years. Parents of younger children who enjoy playing on tablets or computers are taking advantage of applications aimed at developing and sharpening STEM skills, such as programming and the logic of coding.  A number of free apps introduce kids to the concepts of programming in a game-like way such as using the idea of visual blocks to represent different functions, rather than teaching kids the details and grammar of writing code.

They include Tynker, Lightbot One Hour Coding, Kodable, Hopscotch, Daisy the Dinosaur and Cargo-Bot.

Kodable is designed for students 5 and up who must drag and drop commands to program their fuzzy character to get through a maze. By doing this, said co-founder Grechen Huebner, they learn problem solving, computational thinking, sequence, conditions, loops, functions and debugging. People in more than 100 countries have downloaded the app, which is used often in elementary schools because it fits with some of the Common Core State Standards for math, science, and technology.

The STEM Activity App is focused on getting families of 3rd through 5th graders involved in the STEM education process, said co-developer Barbara Joseph of the Aspire Institute at Wheelock College’s Brookline, MA, campus.

“Research has shown that students in elementary schools are interested in math and science but in fourth grade lose interest unless families stay engaged,” she said.

Over the summer, parents receive two low-resource STEM challenges a week over email to present to their children.

“It’s not about the answer. We are trying to increase interest in the activities and wonderment piece,” Joseph said. “We don’t want kids, or parents, to feel daunted by the task.”

Activities include walking your block with an adult and paying attention to the shape.

“We ask, ‘what’s the shape? Do you have to cross any streets? What would it look like if you have to draw it’?’”

Another task might be asking students to fill two jars with water and cover one with a white paper and another with a black paper.

“We then ask them to feel the temperature after a couple of hours. They’ll see that the black is warmer because it absorbs heat and then we make the connection by asking if you build a solar panel what color would you want it to be?” Joseph explained. “We want them to make a connection to the greater world.”


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