Reasons to Love Afterschool Engineering

Philippe Put,  used by permission

Philippe Put, used by permission

Threading the K-12 Needle

Nearly everyone agrees. Getting more – and more diverse – students into engineering classrooms requires catching their interest early. That means the K-12 years, better earlier than later. But the K-12 space is already tight – standards, testing, and teacher training and assessment all create stiff resistance to getting engineering into the K-12 classroom.

So, go in the back door. Afterschool engineering is a great way to crack the K-12 nut. Afterschool, or “out-of-school time,” is more open to engineering, and among the forms of outreach offered, it’s one of the least common. Afterschool engineering programs can still reap the benefits of moving early to bring a good word about engineering to K-12 audiences.

Slow but Steady Going

Engineering does seem to be gaining a beachhead in the formal K-12 school day. But the forces that need moving are tectonic, the pace glacial.

Getting There from Here

James Jordan,  used by permission

James Jordan, used by permission

Even so, it’s a long climb. The NAE estimates that only 10 percent of K-12 students get exposure to engineering in their coursework. These levels do not a robust, diverse technical workforce make.

Supply and Demand

Moreover, all these measures work on the supply side. When students start making their own choices about what to study, they act on what they enjoyed as much as what they succeeded at learning. Stimulating demand for engineering among K-12 students should be part of the equation, too.

Get in on the Fun

Afterschool engineering excels at making engineering fun for kids. The teachers who have used our elementary school book, Dream, Invent, Create, report raised hands and rapt attention in response to the engineering topics it covers. Engineering is Elementary, a program of the Museum of Science in Boston, draws raves.

Why Afterschool Rocks

It’s easy to understand why – afterschool engineering programs open all kinds of space for creativity in design and presentation.

  • Wide open teaching possibilities. No standards or tests to teach to means you can unleash your teaching imagination to present the content you love in the way you want to.
  • Relaxed students, more receptive to new ideas. Without grades or tests to worry about, students can open up to enriching engineering fun.
  • Effective outreach to underserved, underrepresented student groups. Look at a program like Techbridge to see how afterschool activities can excite all demographics of girls in uniquely powerful ways.
  • Rich opportunities for collaboration and partnership. Local schools, businesses, and municipal bodies are often ready and willing to pitch in with time, expertise, and resources.

Room to Grow

With all these appealing features, it was somewhat surprising for us to see that afterschool engineering is not more widely offered. In our survey this fall of engineering outreach activities at colleges and universities, we found only about one-third of schools conducting outreach were offering afterschool activities. Among all forms of outreach – on-campus during the school year and summer, in-school during the day and afterwards – this rate was the lowest. Watch this space for much more on the results of our survey coming soon.

Some Examples

Design competitions like FIRST Robotics and LEGO League (FLL) have become well established afterschool activities. But such activities tend to come fully baked, not leaving much room for adapting to local teaching and learning needs.

Examples of some schools from our survey show how more-local programs have become popular and effective at delivering engineering content to K-12 audiences via the afterschool route.

  • The University of Virginia runs the Virginia Middle School Engineering Education Initiative, using proprietary “Engineering Teaching Kits” and undergraduates as teachers.
  • The Engineering K-12 Outreach Center at Penn State Behrend offers afterschool activities for all levels of K-12 science classes as well as community groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
  • Northern Virginia Community College’s SySTEMic Solutions is extensively linked to the local technology industry, supporting afterschool clubs, robotics competitions, and design challenges in elementary, middle, and high school.

Easy to Begin

Getting started with afterschool engineering activities doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Resources and materials are readily available. Our own Dream, Invent, Create can help introduce engineering to elementary school audiences, and an off-the-shelf curriculum like Engineering Adventures, offered by Engineering is Elementary, can follow up with hours of rich, high-quality afterschool learning. And, by the way, Engineering Adventures is free. The Afterschool Alliance puts afterschool engineering in a broad, fascinating perspective with this comprehensive overview.

Have you had experience with afterschool engineering? What do you find it is or isn’t good for? Share your experiences in the comments below or be in touch.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at