Wednesday, June 27, 2012

All Things Girls and STEM: An Interview With Linda Kekelis of Techbridge, Part 2

By Sam Piha

Last spring, President Obama stated emphatically that, “Emphasizing STEM education—especially to girls and minority students–is one of the most important efforts the U.S. can make if it hopes to produce college- and career-ready students”. Linda Kekelis, Executive Director of Techbridge, a local STEM afterschool program for girls, is a leading innovator of how to do this successfully. Below we offer an interview with Linda Kekelis.

Q: The Learning in Afterschool & Summer learning principles state that learning should be active, collaborative, meaningful to the participants, support mastery, and expand the horizons of those who participate. Can you comment on how important these principles are to facilitating young people’s learning?

Linda Kekelis
A: Techbridge believes in the importance of building a strong network of support for girls that provides them with experiences that support mastery, are relevant to their interests, and expand their options. Many of the girls in Techbridge have aspirations to do well in school and find a career that is personally and professionally rewarding. Unfortunately, without academic and career guidance along with enrichment opportunities, many girls in our community lose their dreams of higher education and drop out of the technology or engineering pipeline. Techbridge creates a network of support on which peers model appropriate behavior, positive attitudes toward learning and work, and caring behavior toward others. The rules of behavior are established at the start of each Techbridge program by the girls themselves through rule and expectations they jointly develop in a respect statement. “It’s a safe place to explore things and try to develop skills and stuff …It’s a place where if you mess up, it’s okay,” shared a Techbridge student.

While hands-on projects can spark an interest in a young girl, we have found that role models and field trips to worksites are instrumental in getting girls interested in a career in a technical field. This is particularly important for girls who are the first in their families to attend college, or who don’t have role models who are in professional careers. Last year on evaluation surveys, 83% of Techbridge participants cited a greater interest in a career in technology, science or engineering because of a role model they met or a company they visited.  The opportunity to see real-world applications of technology, science, and engineering and meet with role models is rare for most of our girls, yet as we have seen, can be a very impactful influence in expanding their horizons.

Q: As you look forward to the future of out-of-school learning, what is most on your mind?

A: Techbridge has seen firsthand the importance of sustained STEM programming for girls and recognizes that our success has been due to innovative curricula that inspire youth and that make connections to STEM careers, role models that are well trained, and personnel that are confident and supported in delivering STEM programming.

As I look to the future of OST learning, I believe it is important that training and resources are provided to those who support after-school programs. Since 2010, Techbridge has partnered with the Oakland After-School Programs Office on the Frontiers for Urban Science Exploration (FUSE) project to develop a professional learning community for introducing informal science education to after-school programs in elementary schools in Oakland. Monthly trainings are held to enhance teaching inquiry-based science, promote science career exploration, and engage families. Coaching is provided to improve science teaching.  The results of this project have been very positive and for me, highlight the importance of providing sustained support for staff that want to bring STEM to youth in their after-school programs but may not have the experience or expertise in these fields. Additionally, it is important to make connections between activities and career opportunities. Resources to support career exploration and the inclusion of role models in after-school are needed to make them successful.

Q: What do you see as the risks and opportunities for afterschool programs in the decade ahead?

A: I see lots of opportunities for after-school programs ahead. After-school programs can allow students to spend more time beyond the school day interacting with their teachers and peers. Through the curriculum and hands-on projects, instructors have the opportunity to provide a caring, supportive environment to nurture and engage youth’s interest in STEM.  The close-knit environment of after-school programs can enable students to develop positive, nurturing relationships with adults.

Most of our students are multi-cultural, from many different ethnicities and backgrounds. While most students segregate by race in their lunchrooms and classrooms during the school day, they can be encouraged to work together in after-school programs. Through icebreakers and team projects, after-school programs can give youth the opportunity to work with students they don’t know, and who might be very different from them culturally. This can help to increase knowledge and comfort with diversity in ethnicity, culture, and social class.

In terms of risks, I think it is important to maintain the “fun” in after-school and not try and make after-school programming more of the school day experience. Kids need choice and voice in the planning and programming of their after-school programs. It is also important to keep in mind what the goals for after-school programming are so that evaluation measures the impact on attitudes, confidence, self-efficacy and interests in STEM studies and careers.

Linda Kekelis is the Executive Director of Techbridge. As an advocate of girls' engagement in science, technology, and engineering, Linda has been a Principal Investigator on five NSF-funded projects that have supported out-of-school programs for girls and training and resources for role models. She has translated research into practical applications for parents, teachers, and role models. She serves on numerous panels and advisory boards for programs designed to increase the participation of females in technology and engineering. Linda also has conducted research on children with special needs and has published resources to promote the development of children who are visual impaired. She has a Master's degree in Linguistics from the University of Southern California and a Doctorate in Special Education from the University of California, Berkeley.

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