Friday, April 4, 2014

Learnings from a Study of Science Offerings in Afterschool Programs

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
SRI International recently published the first part of a 5-year National Science Foundation funded research project, the Afterschool Science Networks study. In this important report, SRI presented case studies of science activities in California afterschool programs and identified the source of limitations of the various programs. Limitations were often related to:
  • Lack of time
  • Staff capacity
  • Instructional materials
  • Lack of support through external partnerships

Below, we interviewed SRI’s Ann House (Project Director of this study) to learn more. The results and implications of this study is a subject of several forums hosted by the California AfterSchool Network. Click here to learn more.  

Q: What were you seeking to learn in your study, Case Studies of Science Offerings in Afterschool Programs?  

Ann House, SRI International
A: Our case studies were conducted within a larger, 5-year NSF-funded research project, the Afterschool Science Networks study. The project set out to examine the extent and types of opportunities for inquiry science learning in California’s large, publicly funded afterschool system. It explored the science offerings available to young people, and sought to understand the role partnerships and networks play in supporting science offerings. The case studies were an important component, providing an opportunity to observe science programming, and to better understand the contexts of the afterschool sites. We selected case study sites we felt were providing rich, interesting, and frequent science offerings with good support, to help us identify the key factors relating to strong afterschool science. 

Q: What were the primary findings of your study?

A: While the overwhelming majority of sites we studied offered some science programming, the afterschool science learning opportunities were constrained and shaped by limited time, and staff comfort with science. Sites tended to have 45 minutes to an hour for science activities, which after setting up and taking down, ended up sometimes amounting to no more than half an hour or so of actual activity. Another time limitation was that about half offered science once a week or more. The other half offered science less often. 

The fact that staff did not have training in leading science activities meant that science tended to be focused on keeping young people active and interested. This meant, for example, focusing on enjoying the reaction produced when you combine vinegar and baking soda, rather than exploring the underlying science content or providing opportunities to participate in inquiry practices. In the two cases where observed science activities were fairly rich, the facilitators of the activities had participated in professional development focused on how to facilitate science activities – an unusual opportunity. Facilitators at other sites did not have access to such training. 

Q: In terms of the limitations that were the result of staff capacity, do you think that the absence of skills on “inquiry-based activities” were more or less important than a background in science content? Can you say something about what you mean by “inquiry-based activities”?

A: When we talk about “inquiry-based activities” we were primarily guided by the National Research Council’s 2009 report, Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits, and framed inquiry in terms of:
  • Working on extended investigations or projects
  • Designing or implementing their own investigation
  • Allowing for children to choose their own activities
  • Providing leadership opportunities for children
  • Posing questions or setting up a scientific investigation
  • Enabling children to connect science to their real lives
  • Making connections to children's interests
  • Working in small groups or teams
Facilitating children’s engagement in inquiry takes specific skills and insights that staff can learn. We believe the case study findings show that a science background is less important than having access to professional development focused on how to engage and lead children through inquiry-based activities. Someone with a science background may or may not have such skills. Furthermore, we believe that inquiry practices and mindsets are not specific to science, but can be applied to a range of other subjects and activities and empower youth and facilitators to be more skilled in problem solving, collaborating, and reflecting on the world around them. 

Q: Specifically, what core skills are required in leading effective “inquiry-based activities”?

A: This is beyond the specific scope of our study, but our experience from this and other projects suggest that it’s important for staff in afterschool settings to understand their role as a facilitator of the children’s experiences rather than a teacher who delivers knowledge. We saw some instances of science activities that resembled unruly classrooms, where the children were primarily asked to sit still, listen, and follow directions. This did not allow for the kind of learner-centered approach that is essential both to good inquiry learning and good youth development practice. 

Some of the concrete skills we believe are important are:
  • Asking constructive questions; 
  • Addressing children’s questions in ways that build on and deepen their engagement; 
  • Facilitating children’s group work and collaboration; 
  • Supporting children in asking questions about their world and building answers to those questions; and 
  • Facilitating discussions that help children synthesize their learning and experiences. 

Q: The LIAS project takes the position that youth workers need to make learning activities active, collaborative, meaningful, support mastery, and expand the horizons of the participants. This means everything from hands-on learning to knowing how to work as a unified group; from drawing on prior knowledge to working on real world issues; and working on activities over time that results in an accumulation of knowledge and skills. How do you think the LIAS principles relate to leading STEM activities?

A: We believe that LIAS principles are very well aligned with inquiry science activities. For example, conducting investigations, collecting data, and designing solutions make learning activities active, meaningful, and support mastery. Engaging in scientific reasoning and argument provides additional skill development, deepens the meaningfulness of activities and often involves collaboration. Finally, while investigating science phenomena and designing solutions in and of themselves broaden youth’s horizons in terms of opening up their understanding of the world and empowering youth to engage with the world, their horizons can also be broadened in terms of learning more about STEM-related careers and how STEM skills and knowledge can help them become more informed citizens. 

It’s important to note that STEM activities need to be facilitated in ways that attend to children’s thinking, interests, and learning process. Asking youth to follow specific instructions without providing the opportunity to learn about or explore their world using scientific practices does not deeply address LIAS or STEM learning principles, even if the activity covers science topics. 

Ann House, Ph.D., the project director of this study, is a senior research social scientist at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International. Her research and evaluation experience covers both informal and formal education environments using mixed methods of investigation. She holds a Ph.D. in speech communication from the University of Texas at Austin.

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