After-School Programs and STEM: The Key to an Inclusive Tech Future

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe, Contributor

Encouraging more female, minority, and disenfranchised populations to consider studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) will be essential in the next five years, says Jessica Anderson, director of strategic giving at Dell Technologies.

Anderson points to telling statistics: By 2024, there will be 1.1 million computing-related job openings in the United States, only 45 percent of which can be filled based on U.S. graduation rates, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Moreover, just 25 percent of U.S. computer scientists are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; and Pew Research Center found that only 7 percent of STEM workers are black and 6 percent are Hispanic.

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Anderson, along with other industry leaders, believe one critical way to spark STEM interest among marginalized youth requires revisiting primary and secondary schooling, particularly the formative after-school program.

After-School Programs Lead to Careers

One way to help women, minorities, and children living in poverty become engaged in STEM education is to provide free after-school programs that introduce them to technology and science, explains Jodi Grant, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Afterschool Alliance, which strives to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality after-school programs by working with donors to secure funds for after-school STEM programs. The group also works with policymakers and parents to advocate for after-school programs focused on STEM education.

“Most children living in poverty don’t even know what jobs are out there,” she says. “They can learn about biomedical engineering, coding or robotics, and it’s not just about fun—it can lead to careers.”

In fact, a study of 160 after-school STEM programs across 11 states—representing rural, suburban, and urban areas—found that, among the nearly 1,600 participating students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds:
– 80 percent made positive gains in understanding possible careers in science
– 78 percent increased their interest in STEM
– 73 percent increased their belief that they can succeed at science

“One of the things that after-school STEM does really well is share the excitement and joy of learning. It’s not about grades and being judged.”

—Jodi Grant, executive director, Afterschool Alliance

After-school STEM programs engage students in hands-on, real-world projects, like learning how to code, building simple video games or robots, and participating in science projects focused on physics and electricity, Grant says. These programs give students a chance to get out of their comfort zones, learn skills, and discover new, potential careers. “One of the things that after-school STEM does really well is share the excitement and joy of learning,” she says. “It’s not about grades and being judged.”

After-school programs allow students to try and fail in a low-stakes environment and to understand that failure is part of the engineering experience, agrees Ron Ottinger, executive director of the STEM Next Opportunity Fund, which makes strategic investments in the STEM learning field. “You try a design or you have a hypothesis, and if it doesn’t work, you figure out what went wrong and try again,” he says. Ottinger believes motivation is a stronger predictor than math and science grades of whether kids will go on and pursue STEM careers.

Students also have to see how STEM plays into their lives, he continues. “If kids can’t see why STEM relates to them, you will see a drop off in third grade in science and significant drop in eighth and ninth grades.”

This is why after-school STEM programs are meant to build confidence and creativity, explains Grant. For example, she notes, at Mr. Fix It, a high school program supported by the Afterschool Alliance in New Hope, Alabama—where the median household income is about 15 percent lower than the national median—students are taught basic engineering skills, and tasked with building solar panel heaters and coolers for community members in need. This experience lead one student, Colby Holmes, to receive a grant to attend community college and study to become an electrician.

Similar outcomes can be seen in other after-school programs, like Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that focuses on teaching girls teamwork and leadership, as well as fundamental computer science concepts. Since its founding in 2012, Girls Who Code has reached nearly 185,000 girls, grades 3 through 12, from all 50 U.S. states. According to the organization, girls who’ve participated in the free after-school program have gone on to pursue college majors in computer science or related fields at a rate of 15 times the national average for women.

Build a Diverse Talent Pipeline

For technology companies, encouraging young talent to pursue a career in engineering or computer science is essential for filling future jobs. That’s why Dell Technologies has invested nearly $70 million globally in STEM programs since 2014: to develop a diverse and well-educated pipeline of young people that will be ready to enter the workforce in 2030.

“As society is becoming increasingly diverse, we need to make sure our industry reflects that, and we need to target the communities that might not always have the same type of access.”

—Jessica Anderson, director of strategic giving, Dell Technologies

Dell Technologies is not only investing in after-school programs, however, but also in-school and summer immersion programs. “Both after-school and in-school programs are extremely important to make sure we’re reaching under-served students—because not every kid can stay after school,” Anderson explains.

While most programs are focused on STEM education, Anderson says the company works to ensure students understand there are jobs in tech outside of computer science too. “You can work at an IT company and not be an engineer or computer scientist. You may be a young person who is an amazing artist, [and there’s a place for you here, too].”

“As society is becoming increasingly diverse,” Anderson continues, “we need to make sure our industry reflects that, and we need to target the communities that might not always have the same type of access. If you don’t know what computer science is, you can’t say you want to be a computer scientist.”