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Learning Library Blog Virtual afterschool program helps build STEM skills
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Virtual afterschool program helps build STEM skills

By Nicole Krueger
July 18, 2017
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When kids come home from school unattended day after day, chances are they’ll end up clocking quite a bit of screen time — whether on a video game, computer or other device.

But what if parents could harness that time to help their kids develop stronger STEM skills?

One innovative afterschool program does exactly that. WidgetWatch is an online afterschool program that leverages students’ interest in technology to keep them learning even after school gets out. With a STEM-based curriculum grounded in the ISTE Standards, WidgetWatch teaches students to tinker, design and create with emerging digital technologies.

“Our research has shown we may be the first virtual afterschool program in the country,” says Pam Simon, an ISTE member and co-founder of the Oregon-based Fidgets2Widgets program, which created WidgetWatch as a way to reach a wider population.

“It’s a disruptor in that the entire model of afterschool programming has been about bringing kids to a physical location. Now with technology and with how tech-savvy young kids are, we can really bring it to them.”

Designed for kids between 10 and 14, many of whom come home to an empty house every day, the program combines STEM activities with game-based learning in a casual environment where students can relax and have fun together.

“We’re mostly dealing with middle school students right now,” Simon says. “Legally they’re old enough to be home alone, but that doesn’t mean they’re emotionally or socially ready. It’s a great way to alleviate parents’ worries with an extra set of eyes to check in on them.”

How WidgetWatch works

When students get home, they log into a webinar platform where they’re greeted by an adult mentor and around 10 other kids. After some unstructured social time for chatting, they can get homework help if needed.

Each week there’s a different learning theme, from making YouTube videos to 3D design and printing. Students spend some time working through STEM learning modules and completing projects based on what they learned. Once instructional time is over, they get to game together on a private Minecraft server.

“The thing kids love so much is that the webinar involves visual, auditory and text communication,” Simon says. “They love to see each other while playing and learning. On a lot of the gaming servers, they can talk on a headset but there isn’t that visual component. That adds a huge dimension the kids love.”

For students with Fitbits or other fitness tracking devices, there’s even an exercise reward program that lets them redeem their steps at an online store.

“Kids who are attracted to technology often aren’t really team sports kind of people, so we just wanted to get them moving,” she says. “Tech kids love gadgets. We knew we just needed to incentivize it.”

Developing digital skills

While the afterschool program aims to keep things casual and fun for kids, the curriculum is firmly rooted in the ISTE Standards for Students — particularly those pertaining to digital citizenship.

“As a parent, I was seeing what my boys were and were not getting in school, and I also understood that their digital lives outside of school were quite robust,” Simon says. “I knew they still needed guidance, mentoring and stewardship. You don’t want to just unleash the technology on them without teaching them all the responsibility that comes with it.”

Students explore digital citizenship issues through hands-on projects like making videos, during which they learn about what it means to have a YouTube account, post videos and subscribe to other channels. They also become knowledge constructors and innovative designers as they practice using technology to inform, curate and express their own learning.

For kids who love gaming and gadgets, WidgetWatch helps channel their passion for technology into using technology as a creative outlet rather than simply as passive entertainment.

“Anecdotally, we’ve had more than one parent tell us their child loves coming, would never miss it and has learned more in our program sometimes than they do in school,” Simon says. “We’ve actually had kids tell us that they love Fidgets2Widgets better than Disneyland.”

Start with the empowered learner course to bring the ISTE Standards to life through online PD.