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The Perfect Formula: An Online Afterschool STEM Program Takes Off

December 15, 2020

By Jennifer Friedlin, Director of Communications

It 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday during the pandemic and students are"" logging into an afterschool STEM class run by Community Counseling and Mediation (CCM) at P.S. 238. One by one a group of a dozen eighth graders appears on the grainy screen, each one greeted with a warm welcome by the two instructors who run the STEM program.

“Hey, Jennifer,” says Ashlea Hitchman.

“You ready to build a rocket?” chimes in Jewell Barrow.

The students warmly respond to activity specialists Ashlea and Jewell – both biochemistry majors – who manage to generate enthusiasm for science even in the virtual setting.

“Afterschool is the highlight of my day,” says Jennifer, 13. “I’m surrounded by people that make me laugh a lot even though we are not seeing each other in person.”

STEM is a favorite activity at CCM’s afterschool program in Midwood, Brooklyn. With the support of ExpandED, the current program was designed by Franco Hernandez, CCM’s assistant director, to design STEM programming featuring hands-on learning projects, field trips, and exciting lesson plans in an environment that is “a perfect blend of exclusive and inclusive,” says Kerry-Ann Archibald, program director at CCM.

“The STEM program started changing when the students felt like they were part of an exclusive club,” said Kerry-Ann, noting that the STEM team began requiring students to apply to the program and sign a contract to participate. They also offered incentives like gift cards for students who maintain high attendance rates and organized field trips to places like local estuaries and museums, inviting families to come along.

Although actual field trips are currently on hold, the fun and learning continue even in the virtual setting. And the students are responding.

After Covid closed schools in the spring, afterschool participation rates dropped dramatically as families experienced hardships and technology proved challenging. When the school year began, Ashlea and Jewell spent hours emailing, calling, and texting students and their families, encouraging them to join in. The effort paid off and now the STEM class gets an average of 10 to 15 kids a session, compared with 15 to 20 students pre-Covid.

The students say they are happy to attend afterschool, one of the few places they can see their friends, talk with caring mentors, and do fun projects.

“I enjoy STEM more in afterschool than in school,” says Layla, 13, an aspiring pediatrician. “In school we mostly just take notes but here I get to do more experiments.”

The STEM program at CCM is part of STEM Educators Academy, which ExpandED developed with the New York Hall of Science and is working to expand citywide. Through this program, educators attend workshops and receive lesson plans to help them run effective STEM education programs in afterschool.

“The trainings are awesome,” said Ashlea. “They are very hands on so you get to experience the lessons. If we are having fun doing them we know the kids will have fun.”

In the pandemic, afterschool has continued to keep things fun while helping students learn essential STEM concepts and skills. In advance of the rocket project Ashlea and Jewell created a lesson plan about rockets, filled with gifs and other visuals designed to attract students’ attention. They also created STEM care packages consisting of items like rulers, pencils, straws, and tape that the team delivered or sent to the students so that they would have all the materials they needed for projects.

“We don’t assume kids have these things. We don’t know their living situations. They may be displaced or out of town,” said Kerry-Ann.

After an introductory lesson about rocketry that focused on concepts like speed, stability, and precision, Ashlea and Jewell told the students it was time to assemble the rockets.

Using pencils, tubes, and various items for the fins, the students designed, built, and then propelled their rockets by blowing through the straw. Some ricocheted off walls, others plunged to the ground, generating a sea of laughter.

“Online afterschool is optional,” says Jewell. “All these kids are logging on because they want to so the least we can do is give them 110 percent.”