Why Does Engineering Lag in Afterschool?

STEM on the rise in afterschool world

Afterschool programs are little different from other learning activities – STEM education is popular and widely available. Nearly 70 percent of afterschool programs offer some kind of STEM content.

It’s easy to see why. The alternative learning environments that can be staged in afterschool programs enable fruitful exploration of STEM topics.

Engineering lags

However, as with so many other areas of STEM learning, the “E” in STEM is the least developed part of the picture. Below we’ll explore this phenomenon and invite readers to help sift through some of the reasons for it by completing a one-question survey.

For 50% off …

Respondents will have a chance to buy our Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide at half off. It’s an easy-to-use resource for afterschool engineering programs that all educators can put to use, even without a background in engineering.

Afterschool is big

The America After 3PM survey provides comprehensive data on participation in afterschool programs across the country.

The America After 3PM survey provides comprehensive data on participation in afterschool programs across the country.

10 million kids and their families can’t be wrong. That’s how many participants afterschool programs attract, according to the 2014 America After 3PM survey conducted by the Afterschool Alliance. Even more, the survey found another nearly 20 million kids who would participate, if suitable programs were available.

With nearly half the 55 million or so K-12 students across the country enrolled or wishing to enroll, afterschool programs are key assets in primary and secondary learning environments.

STEM a good fit for afterschool

These programs lend themselves especially well to STEM learning.

  • Sitting outside the realm of standardized or curricular testing, they allow a space for learning to take shape through experimentation and failure without fear of penalty.
  • Taking place in varied settings, afterschool programs provide ready opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning, connected directly to places and objects relevant to kids’ daily lives.
  • An open leadership structure allows mentors and role models from the community to participate, especially meaningful to kids from under-represented groups who might not otherwise encounter people in STEM fields who look like them.

As it happens, these attributes of learning programs frequently appear in models suggested for use in K-12 engineering education and outreach. In our series last fall on failure, design, and relevance in K-12 engineering education, for example, we explored these areas in greater detail.

Engineering lags

Notwithstanding the engineering-friendly attributes of afterschool programs, engineering remains the least-common topic offered in the afterschool STEM world. The America After 3PM survey presented STEM-related findings in "Full STEM Ahead." This report found STEM topics appearing in this order of frequency:

  • Math, 60 percent of STEM programs
  • Science, 45 percent
  • Technology and Engineering, 30 percent

Even the 30 percent figure seems to obscure the low profile of engineering in the field. “Technology” programs would presumably include computer-oriented activities, which Google search results suggest are more prevalent than “engineering” programs.

  • “Technology after school” generated 15,600 items.
  • “Computer after school” generated 15,400.
  • “Engineering after school” generated 9,140.

Admittedly imprecise, these results at least suggest the contours of what’s up for kids to choose from in the field.

Afterschool reaches key groups

So much the worse for engineering, we’d say, because one of the strengths of STEM afterschool programming is the appeal to exactly the populations engineering has difficulty reaching.

  • Girls participate at a rate almost equal to boys; among students with STEM opportunities, 73 percent of girls and 80 percent boys sign up.
  • African-American and Hispanic children participate at 80 percent rates, while white children do so at 77 percent.
  • And studies have shown that afterschool program participation can reduce achievement gaps between students from low-income families and those from high-income families.

The many benefits of afterschool

A full analysis of how afterschool STEM programs can work most effectively is presented with typical usefulness in the National Academy of Engineering’s report, Identifying and Supporting Productive STEM Programs in Out-of-School Settings. This report gathers multiple sources to make the case that afterschool STEM programs play vital roles in promoting learning, exciting kids about future opportunities, and breaking down barriers that under-represented groups face in formal education settings. Given these opportunities, engineering would be well served indeed by mounting a much more robust effort to establish a profile in afterschool program activities.

Missing a good opportunity

Get half off the cost of our Teacher's Guide for answering our afterschool engineering survey question.

Get half off the cost of our Teacher's Guide for answering our afterschool engineering survey question.

However, as noted in “Full STEM Ahead,” “the afterschool field often states that it is ideally situated for technology and engineering programs and yet it appears that this potential is far from realized.”

This insight was a strong impetus for us to develop a Teacher’s Guide for our elementary-age book, Dream, Invent, Create. Because it requires no background in engineering and only low-cost supplies to put into use, the Teacher’s Guide is ideal for adoption in afterschool programs.

What are the obstacles for engineering?

We’d like to know what readers think might be the reasons that engineering has such a low profile in afterschool programs. Choose the best answers in the survey to explain this phenomenon. Respondents will get a discount code for use on our website to get the Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide at 50 percent off the regular price.

We hope you’ll participate. Please feel free to forward the survey as well as this piece to any interested colleagues or friends.


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 eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEngNow.

Our new Dream, Invent, Create Teacher’s Guide makes it easy to get started teaching elementary school engineering, even with no training in the field.

And, for outreach or education programs, don’t forget to take a look at our popular K-12 engineering books, What’s Engineering?, Dream, Invent, Create, and Start Engineering: A Career Guide.

Photos: Water balloon, NC State College of Engineering, The Engineering Place, used by permission; Girls weighing, USNA STEM Center, used by permission.