Monday, August 29, 2016

Quality STEM and Afterschool: An Interview with Dr. Carol Tang

By Sam Piha

Carol Tang is a long-time champion of quality STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) activities in afterschool and summer programs. She is the Executive Director at the Children's Creativity Museum in San Francisco, and former Director of the Coalition for Science After School. She is also a Board member of the How Kids Learn Foundation

She agreed to a video interview about the relationship between the Learning in Afterschool & Summer learning principles and quality STEM activities, which can be viewed below. This brief video interview is a good resource for afterschool staff to discuss. 

More recently, Dr. Tang agreed to answer additional questions about quality STEM activities. 

Q: Can you list a couple of qualities that good STEM activities demonstrate? 

A: While some folks may believe that STEM activities need to have science facts or math formulas to be good, in fact, high-quality STEM activities may not look like a traditional science lesson at all! Good STEM should include open-ended questions where children have a chance to apply their existing knowledge and experience in a hands-on activity. The best STEM activities are ones where more questions are generated than answers and where children end up wanting more time to explore. All STEM activities should also have dedicated time for children to share their ideas with each other and work together to solve challenges. 

Q: Why do you think that afterschool and summer youth programs are a good setting to promote STEM knowledge and activities? 

A: I strongly believe that out-of-school time offers a unique opportunity to engage youth in STEM learning--partly because these experiences don't feel like a homework assignment. Afterschool programs and their staff are already aware of children's individual interests and learning styles and they are prepared for the daily challenge of delivering engaging programming. I find that afterschool staff intuitively value open-ended exploration, collaboration, and unstructured play and these are exactly the principles that should be applied to good STEM experiences as well.

Q: Are there certain populations that have less access to STEM experiences and are ones that we should target?

A: Many studies have shown that children in both urban and rural communities lack access to both classroom and out-of-school time STEM enrichments that are crucial for inspiring interest and building confidence in STEM. This means that even children who have an aptitude for STEM may never get the role models and encouragement they need to see themselves pursuing STEM in the future. Many studies have shown that if girls and students of color do not receive experiences that both spark and sustain their interest in STEM, they will no longer identify with STEM in their lives. In my eyes, this is not just a tragedy on an individual level, but it is a loss for our society that depends on the creativity and talents of all.

Q: In your work, what have you seen as the challenges to those offering STEM activities in out-of-school or informal learning settings? 

A: I am heartened to see that in the years since I started championing STEM in afterschool, the awareness of its importance has become more and more common across settings and programs. The challenge I still see however, is that there are not enough resources within programs to maintain a diversity of STEM offerings to keep kids engaged throughout their formative years. Even when programs do offer high-quality STEM, it's often based on just a few activities or an occasional visit by a partner. Even in well-resourced communities, there is still a lack of continuous experiences that can deepen a young person's budding interest in STEM topics. 

Q: In what way do you think STEM activities intersect with social justice? 

A: First, while all children can benefit from access to the economic stability that STEM careers can bring, wealthy children have safety nets that other children do not; thus it is more imperative that low income families have the ability to climb the economic ladder through STEM jobs. But my passion for STEM goes beyond STEM jobs. There is just no getting around the fact that the environmental, health, and technological issues we face as a society impact different communities in vastly different ways. If under-resourced communities are not armed with the knowledge about the impacts of pollution, lack of healthy food, loss of natural spaces, and climate change, they cannot protect their own interests. I strongly believe that STEM not only offers a good defense, but it can provide the way for positive solutions. Communities can use STEM and creative problem-solving to tackle the issues that impact them and not wait for trickle-down solutions.

These societal and community challenges can be harnessed and used to engage children's interests in STEM. The most powerful experiences are ones where young people design their own projects to address the issues they care most about. It's been well-documented that girls and students of color are more deeply engaged in STEM projects when they have real-world applications. That is when they personally see how STEM can be both personally satisfying and impactful for their communities.

Q: There is a lot of talk about the importance of promoting a sense of "agency". Is there any way this is related to quality STEM activities? 

A: As a former scientist, I think that a STEM "mindset" is empowering because there is no question or problem that I think is impossible to tackle. I have a set of skills and attitudes that allow me to understand that even the hardest challenge can be broken down into questions, variables, and experiments--it might be hard and complex but I have faith that creative and prepared people can solve it eventually. So ultimately, I think participating in STEM activities gives youth agency--the set of skills, abilities, and attitudes to think critically, plan, and successfully carry out a project. They develop agency through the one STEM activity in front of them that one afternoon--but more importantly, over time, good STEM activities will strengthen their sense of agency and ability to be successful in life.

Carol M. Tang, Ph.D. is the Executive Director at the Children’s Creativity Museum and former Director of the Coalition for Science After School. She is experienced in non-profit management, strategic planning, envisioning, meeting facilitation, team building, fundraising and public speaking. She also has extensive experience in teaching, organizing, and leading science education efforts including out-of-school programming, exhibitions, teacher professional development, public programs, volunteer management and higher education.

Carol is active in professional service through grant review panels, Board membership, advisory committees, technical working groups and conference sessions.

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