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Learning Library Blog 4 Strategies for Building a Community STEM Program
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4 Strategies for Building a Community STEM Program

By Donna Jagielski
December 21, 2021
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ISTE Certified Educator Shares Tips for Informal Learning Organizations

As more informal learning organizations begin to offer programs that engage kids and foster real-world skills, many are expanding their offerings to include STEM activities and makerspaces.

It’s exciting because these organizations – like youth development clubs, city community centers and libraries – need to stay on the cutting edge of what youth and teens love to explore, such as video animation, 3D printing and robotics. These settings can greatly increase access to STEM and STEAM education at a time when many schools are cutting back.

But adding a makerspace or implementing a STEM course is no easy feat. It’s far more complex than buying new sports equipment or planning an arts-and-crafts unit. Most informal-learning staff already have an understanding of sports and gym activities or even basic arts, but when they are expected to implement more innovative and rigorous tech-based programming, many don’t have the training.

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The challenges

The staff who make up informal learning organizations come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Unlike in schools where staff generally have the same type of education and certifications, those who work in after-school programs might still be in college or have no college at all. Some might have an athletic background while others are interested in youth development. Some may be comfortable with technology while others are technophobes.

And, unlike K-12 settings where teachers have dedicated planning periods, youth program staff rarely have time to extend their training.

Another hurdle is STEM resources. Staff need to be trained in the use, maintenance and safety of the equipment. STEM equipment is very different from having books on a shelf that students can browse independently. Students need to be supervised closely, especially younger kids.

STEM programs address the 4 C’s

Informal learning settings are charged with the task of supporting the academic needs of youth and teens. A great number of those academic needs are related to the four C’s of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication, as well as the five E’s: engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration and evaluation.

I have helped organizations customize their systems and basic infrastructure to launch their STEM and makerspace environments for several years now, and I know how challenging it can be to set up robust and sustainable STEM learning opportunities. Here are four strategies to ensure your informal learning spaces are productive, engaging, safe and practical. 

1. Go visual.

One of the quickest and most efficient ways of identifying innovative equipment and tools is to put together a visual library of photos.

For training, Flipgrid is a wonderful tool for short bite-sized videos. You use this tool to create tutorial videos showing how to use a piece of equipment, and staff can easily use it to create a video response showing what they made with the equipment and describe their experience.

Tech tools such as Adobe Spark and Spark Post can be very useful for curating content to communicate outcomes of projects to donors and other stakeholders. Using PowerPoint and Google Slides to diversify staff training guides, resources and materials, is great because they have mobile apps. Plus you can embed screenshots, YouTube or Vimeo videos, and hyperlinks making it a one-stop shop of visual delivery.

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2. Build in project management.

Creating a makerspace from scratch involves a great deal of project management.
It demands communicating with many people at various levels from different departments and ensuring that tasks move forward.

I recommend the use of platforms that will provide checklists, notifications of tasks and the ability to embed files, such as spreadsheets, to provide financial and budget information in order to move the project along.

Leveraging Mircosoft Planner with Excel can be highly beneficial for maintaining budget, construction timelines and ordering equipment. Grouping people together who need to execute similar sets of jobs can be achieved with seamless communication dashboards offered in tools such as Slack, Airtable and Trello. An added benefit to using these management tools are their mobile apps and real-time updates. 

3. Integration with other apps. 

Developing a large-scale project will inevitably involve a great deal of meetings and notetaking. Besides being able to record and archive virtual meetings via Zoom and Teams, handwritten notes and drawings on markerboards can go digital with technology tools, such as Rocketbook.

This notebook works with any writing instrument provided it can be wiped clean like a markerboard. It can be reused over and over once notes have been sent to a cloud based location. The free app captures an image of your handwritten notes and drawings in a PDF format, which you can send to various locations, including Google Drive, One Drive, One Note, Dropbox, Evernote as well as the project management tool of Trello. Rocketbook even has beacons, which are orange corner markings that can adhere to any makerboard. They allow you to transform your markerboard into a real-time collaborative workspace by capturing the image using the Rocketbook app and sharing it with others. 

4. Collect data.

Unlike K-12 schools, which are never at a loss for data since they administer so many assessments, informal learning settings aren’t often set up to collect quantitative data. But there are many simple tools you can use to acquire data in real time.

Using free and low-cost survey tools, you can do quick polls and surveys during meetings, training sessions and with the youth themselves to get valuable data that can be integrated into annual impact reports.

Poll Everywhere and Mentimeter provide quick pulse checks as well as the ability to produce visually attractive word clouds as an illustrative demonstration of qualitative input. If you don’t have too many devices or don’t permit them with your youngest youth, try using Plickers where all participants need is the scannable QR code style card.

Whatever your method, quantifiable data can easily be imported into spreadsheets, such as Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel, so you can produce graphs and charts of data.

There are so many technology tools that offer numerous ways to communicate and collaborate. I encourage you to explore what’s available to help your staff grow professionally, be empowered, have a sense of ownership, amplify their voice and choice, and ultimately make the lives of kids that much more fantastic!

Need PBL ideas? Discover real-world projects for real-world classrooms. Read ISTE's book Reinventing Project-Based Learning.

Donna Jaigelski, Ph.D. aka “Dr. J.,” has served as a teacher, instructional coach, administrator and ed tech and STEM specialist within the K-12 school system for 21 years. She has also served as a STEM director in nonprofit organizations. She is an ISTE Certified Educator and works as a consultant for community-based organizations. She serves as STEM liaison and representative for the statewide professional organization AzTEA (Arizona Technology in Education Association), which is an ISTE affiliate.