Advocacy & Public Policy Newsletter ~ November 2012
When it comes to the impact of after-school science programs for at risk youth, what is the best way to measure success? A STEM career? A college degree? General scientific literacy? Avoidance of imprisonment? That question, as well as many others, were discussed at a two-day meeting hosted by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia to which AWIS was invited.
The National Science Foundation has been providing grants to support informal education projects that are designed to engage young girls in science, but little has been done to evaluate the success of these programs. In order to try to evaluate outcomes and identify best practices, a group of scientists surveyed participants, ranging in age from 18 to 40, to gauge their scientific literacy and career outcomes. The programs ranged from very broad science outreach to highly focused engineering oriented programs, including National Science Partnership (NSP) via Girl Scouts of America, Women in the Natural Science (WINS), Girls Inc. programs Operation SMART and Eureka, and Techbridge. All of the programs evaluated engaged women from within the STEM community to work with the girls, although the duration of the interaction was variable.
Several women who had participated in these programs as middle or high school girls attended the meeting and offered testimonials about the impact these programs had not only on their scientific literacy, but their overall career trajectories. Most striking were the stories of those who came from high-risk backgrounds. While not all of them went into a STEM field, most of them are now in some line of work where they are reaching back into the underserved populations from which they came and are working to elevate members of those communities. Because these programs serve a wide range of girls and some had very specific participation guidelines (single parent, low income, stringent application process) while others were very broad and open to any participants, it is hard to draw any statistically significant outcomes. What was apparent, however, based on the metrics by which the responses of the participants were evaluated, was that these opportunities for informal learning had fostered an appreciation for science and technology literacy, as well as an increased level of academic self-confidence. The tentative conclusions lend support to the idea that informal learning opportunities can have a meaningful impact in girlsâ€™ lives, particularly when they have the opportunity to engage with positive scientific and engineering role models.