Interim Edition - December 2014
Afterschool STEM - It's All About Quality!

Quality. Most of us feel like we "know it when we see it," but coming up with a comprehensive definition of the word feels far from straightforward. In order to provide quality programming to our students that will result in increased youth interest, motivation and engagement in STEM subjects, we first have to agree upon what quality is.  
When you have a minute, take a look at this video of an afterschool STEM activity:
Flubber Activity at Science Club 
Science Club Flubber Activity
On the surface, participants are engaged and having a lot of fun, but is this a quality STEM activity? Or could changes be made that would result in more student learning, inquiry and practice?
That is the question we want to explore in this Interim Edition of the SySTEM Newsletter. Since afterschool programs and activities can look so different in various settings, how can we determine quality throughout all types?

Read along with us and join the conversation in building a definition of Quality Informal STEM, which will be used to advance our goal of
increasing the number of opportunities for Iowa youth, families, and adults to participate in high quality, active-learning (informal) STEM outside of the traditional school day.

Quality Afterschool STEM: A Working Definition

With input from the STEM Active Learning Community Partners Working Group, we have been putting a lot of thought into a definition of quality that can be used in our work with informal and out-of-school time programs offering STEM. Here's what we have come up with so far:


Quality informal STEM inspires interest in integrated science, technology, engineering, and math by providing opportunities for youth to develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, inquiry, and creativity through engaging, hands-on and inter-generational activities and programming. Quality programming is distinguished by authentic and appropriate active engagement in purposeful activities in an environment that is conductive to learning, curiosity, and experimentation, and provides youth with opportunities to build positive relationships, reflect, and connect their learning to the broader world.

What do you think? We want your input! Please click here to respond to a very short survey to help us polish this definition.

Gil Noam is the founder and director of
 Harvard's Program in Education, Afterschool & Resiliency (PEAR), and one of the country's leading experts in youth development. 
This article from the National AfterSchool Association, the national Afterschool Alliance, and the National Summer Learning Association offers valuable insight into quality afterschool STEM through an interview with Dr. Noam that outlines the challenges afterschool providers face in implementing STEM activities and gives suggestions on ways to overcome these barriers.

A short excerpt from Dr. Noam's interview:

As I delved into this research, I became deeply aware of the linkages that exist between youth development philosophy, which underlies a lot of summer and afterschool learning, and that of informal science education. When you think about it, there really is much in common with their beliefs, vision, and practices.


Mentoring, for example, focuses on a youth's assets: growing strengths in kids, promoting voice and choice in their learning and what they commit themselves to, and exploring their own identity. If you look at those principles and superimpose informal science ideas choice learning, the questioning process, discovery and hands on learning, a project-based mentality, and seeing the learner as an active, science-pursuing identity - it struck me that it's really a 'marriage made in heaven,' if you believe in such things.

The last two pages of the article contain dozens of quality STEM resources to explore. Click here to check it out!
Inventory of Quality STEM Elements

This piece from the California AfterSchool Network describes the process its writers used to pinpoint indicators of quality in afterschool STEM activities by analyzing and synthesizing existing research on successful afterschool STEM programs to find commonalities among them.
Through the data compiled, these researchers identified four thematic categories of quality STEM in afterschool:
  • Relevance
  • Relationships
  • Rigor, and
  • Resolve
There are several points to consider within each of these categories, and they can be helpful to program staff and administration whether you'd like to elevate the quality of your STEM activities, or if you are just beginning to add STEM activities to the schedule! 

Download the article by clicking here.
Measuring Quality: The Dimensions of Success 

The Dimensions of Success (or DoS) is a self-assessment observation tool for STEM program administrators and staff. The DoS pinpoints twelve indicators of STEM program quality in out-of-school time. It was developed and studied with funding from the National Science Foundation by the Program in Education, Afterschool and Resiliency (PEAR), along with partners at Educational Testing Service (ETS), and Project Liftoff.


The twelve dimensions, shown above, fit into four larger categories that allow an in-depth observation of the learning environment, activity engagement, STEM practices, and youth development in STEM. Through DoS, the programs have a tool to elevate the quality of their STEM activities, ensuring that:

  • The environment is conducive to learning, curiosity, and experimentation.
  • Children and youth are actively engaging in purposeful activities that support STEM skills.
  • Activities give youth opportunities to further develop STEM content knowledge and practice and chances to reflect on that learning.
  • Programs promote strong relationships among peers and among youth and adults, connect their learning to the broader world, and prioritize youth voice and choice.
The IAA is seeking individuals across the state who are interested in observing afterschool STEM programs using the DoS tool. To ensure tool validity, observers must participate in a two-day online training via webinar and complete the certification process as outlined by PEAR. Thanks to funding from the Noyce Foundation, this training is provided at no charge to a limited number of individuals who will commit to this Initiative


There are a few spots available for the webinar training taking place January 8-9, 2015. This is your chance to become part of a growing network of active learning STEM experts in Iowa! 


If you are interested in becoming a DoS observer, please contact Indira Blazevic Karic at

Presented by Ashima M. Shah, PhD. (PEAR) and Maryann Stimmer, Senior Manager for STEM Programs (STEMeducators, Inc.), this webinar features in-depth discussion of program-level and activity-level quality considerations.

Follow this link to watch the recording, and click here to download the presentation slides.

STEM Save the Dates

February 19, 2015: STEM Day at the Capitol


March 29, 2015: The STEM Active Learning Community Partners Working Group will host an evening session on planning quality STEM programs with an immersive observation activity!


March 30, 2015: Annual STEM Summit in Des Moines


April 23-24, 2015: Impact After School Conference at Ramada Tropics Resort and Conference Center (Annual statewide conference for all afterschool professionals, regularly features STEM sessions for the afterschool setting). We are considering the possibility of hosting a day-long STEM PD Workshop for afterschool professionals in conjunction with this conference. Please contact Indira if you would be interested in attending. 

 Mark your calendar, and stay tuned for more details on these events coming soon!


To view our website, click here with more resources and updates.


You are receiving this Newsletter because you have been associated with one of our Active Learning STEM events in the past. If you have a colleague who would like to receive this news, please have them join here.  

For general questions, please contact:
Indira Blazevic Karic
System Building Initiative Lead
Iowa Afterschool Alliance
2910 Westown Pkwy, Suite 302
West Des Moines, IA 50266
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