Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Science Books for Kids

While it's true that doing hands-on science activities is a great way to learn, every child needs a little down time to relax and let their busy minds process their experiences. Science books can be a great way for younger children to learn before bed, after working and playing hard at school, or on a rainy weekend. Plus, reading lets kids build their science, reading, and critical thinking skills all at the same time. Booklist just released their Top 10 Science and Technology books for 2010. The books cover a wide variety of science subjects--from archaeology, biology, engineering, ecology, and much more.

If you're an educator looking for books to use in your program, the National Science Teachers Association has a huge, annually-released compilation of the best science trade books for K-12 students stretching back to 1996. Again, the books cover a wide range of science subjects and are organized by subject or purpose (such as "Science as Inquiry" and "Unifying Concepts and Processes in Science"). 

Do you use science books in your afterschool program? What are some of your favorites?

Monday, November 22, 2010

How should schools tackle extended learning time?

Last week, in an article on the Washington Post's education blog, Class Struggle, columnist Jay Mathews attempted to reconcile two competing perspectives on extended learning time: advocating for afterschool programs vs. extending school hours. These two ideas are tied up in the wider debate on education reform in the United States and must compete for funding, staff, and public support. 

The whole article is definitely worth reading--especially the comments, where Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant jumps in and interacts with Jay, classroom teachers, parents, and advocates on both sides of the issue. 

Certainly, students spending more time learning during the day--whether in a classroom or outside of it--has been shown to improve learning overall using test scores (see the article and comments for more specifics). But longer classroom hours and the increased learning effectiveness also correlate with better teaching skills and strategies overall--and it would be hard to argue that simply increasing school hours leads to better teachers. Rather, it would seem that teachers who are good at what they do tend to work at schools with longer hours overall.

And I would venture a guess that many of us know of teachers from our own educational experience who put in the extra effort outside of school hours to ensure that their students were truly learning--through informal chats, extra tutoring time, or running an afterschool program. The key to effective learning seems to be making learning engaging, through creative curriculum and good teaching--something that happens in informal educational settings, which take place in out-of-school time. 

There's no doubt that extending learning time is essential to increasing learning effectiveness. Mounds of data--both international and domestic--help to support that case. And it's likely that education reform in the US will include increasing learning time during the school year and summer. It's up to advocates for out-of-school time to develop successful programs with meaningful learning outcomes and to influence the tone of the extended learning time debate.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How early should we start teaching STEM?

A recent study funded by the NSF found that how much time new parents spend talking about numbers affects how well their children learn basic math later in life. Researchers listened to recordings of caregivers interacting with their children during everyday tasks and noted the incidences of number-related talk; some parents mentioned as few as four number words during the study, while others mentioned number words over 250 times. Children whose parents mentioned number words more often were more likely to understand the "cardinal number principle," which says that "the size of a set of objects is determined by the last number reached when counting the set (e.g., a set of 10 items is larger than a set of seven items)."

Research into early childhood development in the past few decades has increasingly shown that very young children are constantly absorbing new information around them and that even the smallest interaction with adults or other children can be loaded with meaning. I can't help but wonder if the principle discovered in this study also applies to science--if parents who talk more about science affect their children's interest in science later in life. And most kids like to build structures with blocks and do puzzles--both of which use engineering concepts. Perhaps one way to increase interest in STEM subjects is to make them a part of the lives of young children.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Importance of Engineering

Engineering is not only the vowel that leads to the convenient (if controversial) acronym for STEM, it's also the discipline that glues the consonants together. At the same time, it's not something that students--and adults--typically engage with in their everyday life. This means that though professional engineers often have high-paying, interesting jobs, educators need to make an extra effort to expose students to opportunities in engineering.

The National Academy of Sciences recently published a study on the uncertainty of K-12 engineering standards in the United States. It is true that engineering has long been taught and learned exclusively or primarily in higher education, with introductory science and math classes in K-12 providing the basic skills necessary for professional engineers to complete their college degrees. But basic engineering skills can be necessary or useful for other professions that don't require advanced degrees--like work in manufacturing and construction. 

Thankfully, many afterschool programs include engineering as part of their activities. Programs from the Directory -- like the Elementary Engineering with Legos in Ohio, Focus on the Possibilities career exploration program in Wisconsin, the Come Fly With Me program in Michigan, and the FIRST Robotics teams across the country, just to name a few. Here's hoping that the out-of-school world is able to keep students creating, innovating, and engaged in engineering.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Don't forget to vote!

You've probably heard it a lot lately, but it bears repeating today: voting is the easiest way to make your opinions known and your voice heard. The Coalition is not a political organization, and we endorse no particular party or candidate. But we still believe that voting is an important way for individuals to influence national policy. No matter what your political views are, making them known by voting is one of the greatest rights enjoyed by citizens in the United States! 

For some last-minute information on the candidates and initiatives in your area, check out the Afterschool Alliance's Election Guide.  Google maps has a great polling place finder too! 
Happy Voting!