Guest column: Out-of-school time is perfect time for STEM events

Keith Berglund
Aspen Science Center

It’s no secret that out-of-school time — the time before and after school, weekends and evenings, and school breaks — contains the largest blocks of discretionary time in a child’s typical week. It is a time that children and adolescents can spend engaged in family time, sports, art and academic enrichment programs with excellent results.

However, there continues to be far too many young people who spend this time in isolation, at home in front of the television or the computer. We know that children and adolescents must lead active and healthy lives, and that having too much unstructured, unsupervised, and unproductive time can hinder their positive development.

High quality out-of-school programs bring out the best in children and adolescents. Evidence indicates that many young people derive great benefit from such programs and extracurricular activities and that these play an important role in promoting healthy development, and helping students increase their academic achievement. Furthermore, participants in quality these programs develop interests and acquire skills that they can apply throughout their academic careers and in future employment. These young people develop the academic skills to succeed in school and the interest in learning that will inspire them to achieve.

At Aspen Science Center, we believe that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning is a perfect fit for a non-school environment because young people can be given the freedom to explore new ideas, take intellectual and creative risks and stretch themselves in ways that cannot always be supported in schools.

Learning develops across time. It is a process that involves not only the transmission and acquisition of information, but also the development of interest and understanding. Students examine their interests, current understandings and prior experiences as the basis for developing and incorporating new information, skills and understanding. While STEM interest and understanding are definitely developed in school, they are reinforced and deepened in the out-of-school setting.

STEM is learned by engaging in sound scientific processes. STEM facts, concepts, skills and relevance are best learned while students are actually engaged in the practices of discovery, investigation and analysis and conclusion. In this way, children and adolescents gain a deeper understanding of STEM as a way of gaining knowledge and understanding by developing questions to ask, designing procedures to answer them and by analyzing data to develop and/or challenge their current models of understanding. Additionally, exploring STEM in a safe setting, free from grades and deadlines, helps young people see themselves as individuals who can succeed at STEM.

Across all grade levels, elementary through high school, STEM learning in the out-of-school arena is critical for preparing and inspiring young people to engage in and pursue STEM fields of study, and ultimately STEM careers. As residents of the Roaring Fork Valley, we are all fortunate to benefit from excellent teachers, high-quality schools and a wide range of out-of-school programs and activities. Our youth can choose from a plethora of out-of-school programs that focus on art, athletics, music, environmental studies, academic enrichment and much more. And while the out-of-school landscape in the valley may appear to be saturated, Aspen Science Center is working diligently toward a goal of offering more and more high-quality, out-of-school STEM learning opportunities that are based on the current best understandings of how children, adolescents and young adults learn best.

Aspen Science Center is very well-positioned to provide consistent, high-quality, out-of-school STEM learning opportunities for youth from Aspen to Rifle.

We already have a consistent history of providing out-of-school STEM opportunities in various forms throughout the valley, which have included:

Science Sundays at Jimmy’s, where we transform the entire restaurant into a mini science center, with lots of hands-on demonstrations, activities and experiments for young science enthusiasts; and Wednesday Enrichment at Basalt Elementary School, where we created and delivered nine weeks of high-quality STEM learning modules for third- and fourth-grade students.

Looking ahead into 2018, we will be offering more of these successful STEM programs in new locations, and we are currently developing some wonderful new ones, such as a summer Rocketry Camp in the midvalley. And finally, Aspen Science Center also is looking beyond 2018 to a time where we will establish community-based, store-front STEM Discovery Centers up and down the valley to provide a full menu of out-of-school learning opportunities for learners in all grade levels. These Discovery Centers will serve as safe, stress-free spaces where kids will congregate during out-of-school times to learn science by doing science!

As you can see, Aspen Science Center has some very ambitious and very important plans for both the near term, and the long term. In order to bring it all to fruition, we will need your help! To learn more about how you can support Aspen Science Center and our growing list of out-of-school STEM opportunities, please go to AspenScience

Keith Berglund is the operations manager for Aspen Science Center.