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Developing YOUth! Project

Measuring the long-term impact of STEM-based out-of-school time programs

April 18, 2017

“Hands-on, minds-on” approach increases science interest and understanding

Posted by Faith R. Kares on April 18, 2017

In the first year of this study, we conducted semi-structured, open-ended interviews with 21 program alumni who graduated from the Science Minors and Achievers (SMA) program in June 2016. Interviews with members of this graduating cohort were conducted in coffee shops, people’s homes, restaurants, and on college campuses. Each interview lasted about 1-1.5 hours and participants were given an Amazon gift card for their time and effort. Among the striking themes that emerged in the preliminary analysis of our data are: (1) the manner in which the “hands-on” element of the program engages science interest and understanding; and (2) how alumni integrated their increased science interest and understanding into the formal education context.

Nearly half of the sample (10 of 21 study participants) described the program as “hands on.” Jay1 liked the hands-on approach and appreciated “learning through experience.” He elaborated on his program experience by comparing it to school: 

[D]uring my school experiences we wouldn’t do a lot of wet lab, we’d just do dry lab... Dry lab is just doing computer work and working on labs online. So we’d do a lab online, but at the Museum we could probably do that right there in person. There’s the DNA fingerprinting station at the Museum. We wouldn’t have that at our high school. So while we would be doing labs online through simulations, which are kind of boring, at the Museum you get to do it hands on live, which is a lot more fun. 

When describing program experiences, alumni frequently referenced their formal education in order to serve as a contrast. Pia explained, “I hated learning science in school, I thought it was so boring, you know, when we had the textbook, right. We never did anything that interesting. But then it was coming to the Museum that I started to, like, love it. And now…I’m going into neuroscience in college.” She added that being in the program one sees the “real-life application” of science. In a similar vein, Tiana related that high school doesn’t offer “as many experiments” compared to the SMA program. 

The hands-on element of the program has been intentional since its inception. Indeed, staff describe the program as “hands on, minds on.” The hands-on activities are a means to an end; not merely hands on for entertainment or engagement sake. The aim of the activities is to make the content stick. And it appears to work. Ana shared, 

I think I learned that… for me it was an interactive science that helps me learn more. I mean, like, usually when I was taught science in school it was from a textbook or just, like, from monotonous labs. But by actually having to teach it to someone, that makes you, like, learn it better.

It’s therefore not only the experiments and hands-on activities, nor the Museum context itself, that increase science interest and understanding but, rather, it’s also the opportunity to teach Museum guests. Aisha remarked,

[Y]ou're not just doing hands on, but you have to teach it to people and that's what makes it different. So I can go to an after-school program and learn how to build a circuit or things like that, but then to go back now and explain how to do it is completely different… So we had to teach it back and that's completely different… [W]hen you're able to explain it back to someone it makes it completely—it's stuck in your head now.

Finally, several alumni brought up how their program involvement positively influenced their school experiences. Ana noted that “school becomes easier.” Meanwhile, Jay reflected that he has become “a better science student and student in general.” Malcolm discussed how he was able to take what he learned in the program and apply it to school. For example, he learned Newton's Laws of Physics in the SMA program: “I think I learned them in the Museum before I learned them at school…that was a pretty fun moment for me to realize what was going on before everyone else.” Another alum, Pia, considered how the program made her “more excited” about science: “Like I had a really great chemistry class sophomore [year] where a lot of people were—a lot of people hated it and were struggling. But I was doing well.” 

These narratives are consistent with out-of-school time  scholarship arguing that informal learning complements formal education. As we proceed in the data collection and analysis phase of the study, we will pay close attention to shifting interest in science among alumni as well as the learning environments and activities in which they are engaged. How might their classroom environment, relationships with college professors, and ongoing engagement with science content in extracurricular activities have an impact on either the decline or increase of science interest among program alumni? 

 1All names are pseudonyms