A robust STEM education is becoming increasingly important as more jobs require higher levels of competency in these areas, especially technology.

One place to support students’ STEM learning is through after-school programs, which “complement what’s possible during the school day, including offering more flexibility and time for hands-on learning to explore career paths and gain workforce skills,” said Maud Abeel, an associate director for Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that develops programs and public policies that increase college and career readiness.

Students participating in STEM after-school programs have reported increased interest in STEM careers. And though not all students are interested in pursuing STEM careers, they still benefit from this kind of knowledge and skills, which are in high demand in today’s workforce, Abeel said.

Education Week identified three after-school programs that are expanding as they try to meet the demand for new, tech-driven skills.

Making a splash with underwater robots

When Santi Criado was younger, he thought he wanted to follow in his mom’s footsteps and become a dentist. Now as a rising senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., he knows he wants to study engineering like his father. Criado credits the change to his exposure to a SeaPerch after-school program during middle school.

SeaPerch is an underwater robotics program from nonprofit RoboNation, which provides hands-on experiences to empower students to find solutions to global challenges. SeaPerch provides students, educators, and parents with kits to get started on their underwater robots. It also provides lesson plans and educator training, and there are also regional and international competitions for students to show off their engineering skills.

“We’ve structured the program activities so it is flexible to fit into existing structures,” said Lindsey Groark, the vice president of programs for RoboNation. “So whether that is a full semester or a yearlong class in high school, or a two-week unit in the classroom or an after-school club, or summer camp, or even just a weekend community event where students come out with their parents—you can dive into the program as deeply as you want to.”

For Groark, the hope is that being part of a SeaPerch program will introduce students to the engineering design process and engineering careers.

“Ocean engineering is one of the more obvious [career] connections,” she said. But the program is focused on “multidisciplinary engineering.” Kids learn about circuitry, electricity, naval architecture, and even aerospace topics. Students have gone on to study computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, systems engineering, and other technical fields, Groark said.

One school district that participates in SeaPerch is the Wahkiakum district, in Cathlamet, Wash. The district’s robotics team took first place in the open division of the International SeaPerch Challenge in May.

Ron Wright, the STEM coordinator for Wahkiakum, said he’s seen the after-school robotics program change students’ lives and “redirect kids who were struggling in school or at home.” For example, one student was getting into “all kinds of trouble in school,” but the robotics program showed him that he’s good at something and that “he’s a really smart kid,” Wright said.

For Criado, what stood out most from his time doing SeaPerch challenges is the teamwork and collaboration, as well as the creativity to make his own design and learn from failures.

“It sparked this interest in STEM that I now have,” he said. “Getting kids into these kinds of things at a young age can be really rewarding, fun, and can help them discover different passions.”

Teaching coding to students of color

James Dominguez, 21, wanted to be an artist when he was younger. Now he’s in college, learning how to be a full-stack engineer, designing and creating websites and applications, which taps into his creative side.

He said he wouldn’t have thought about going into the technology industry when he was younger because he didn’t know anyone who was in tech. But when Google’s Code Next staff came to his middle school, he was excited to try the after-school program.

Code Next is a free computer science education program for high school students to develop the next generation of Black, Latino, and Indigenous technology leaders—groups that are underrepresented in the industry. The program began in 2016 and operates in-person “learning labs” in New York City, Detroit, and Oakland, Calif., where students can tinker with coding tools, meet each other, and meet Google mentors. There’s also an online program for students who don’t live in those cities. (Dominguez attended Code Next in Oakland).

“The program seeks to provide students with the skills and the social capital needed to pursue rewarding careers in technology,” said Kyle Ali, the lead senior program manager for Code Next.

Students learn the fundamentals of computer science and different coding languages, through a mix of direct instruction and team-based activities. For 11th and 12th graders, there’s an incubator program where students come up with an idea and try to have a tangible product by the end of the program that might be ready to be pitched, or even funded.

“One of the things that we are proudest about is, as we see so many of our students that have gone through the program and have ultimately gone on to college or university, they’re coming back to us and wanting to help the students that are coming through the program,” Ali said. And a majority of students who have gone through the program are continuing their computer science education in college.

For Dominguez, one of the biggest highlights of the program was meeting the people who created the products he uses daily and learning how they do it. All it takes for an after-school program like Code Next to be successful is “the right volunteer” who’s “really passionate” about coding and “makes it exciting and interesting.” Now as a Code Next intern, he hopes to be one of those impactful volunteers for the students growing up in the same community.

Exploring careers in virtual reality

A student learns how to change the oil in a car through a virtual reality simulation.

In Indiana, students have access to hands-on career exploration simulations in an after-school program, thanks to a partnership between the Indiana Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs and the immersive learning startup Transfr.

Using virtual reality headsets, kids get exposure to different skills that they didn’t necessarily know about and how those skills are used in the real world. Some professions students learn about in the virtual world include first responders, robotics specialists, health care, automotive service technicians, manufacturing, crane operator, plumbing, and more.

“Many of our clubs already have VR systems for gaming, so this was just another opportunity to expand into the needs, the interests of the kids,” said Lana Taylor, the executive director of the Indiana Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs. Right now, 31 Boys and Girls Clubs in Indiana participate in the Transfr program, with many others on the waitlist.

When students put on the VR headset, they’re dropped into the environment of the career simulation they picked and have to follow instructions to learn a skill. For example, if they picked a lineworker (who installs and fixes overhead cables and electrical systems), they would see the power lines and they’d have to climb to the top and follow step-by-step instructions on how to fix whatever is wrong with the lines.

The Boys and Girls Clubs supplement what students are seeing in the VR headsets with a career exploration curriculum that builds on students’ math, reading, science, and civics skills. And after a simulation, students talk about what they like or didn’t like about the job, their takeaways, and whether they’d like to do the job in the future. Older students are also encouraged to work on certifications and credentials.

“It’s about getting them set up and ready for a career and I think this is one of the more fun pieces that we can use,” said Jon York, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Rush County in Indiana. “It used to be guest speakers and watching DVDs. Now we’ve moved all the way so they’re immersed inside the skills. It goes over better with our kids when they are in charge and in control [of their learning].”

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