I had a chance to hear directly from NASA astronaut and N.C. State graduate Christina Koch as she shared her experience at the International Space Station with me and a couple of hundred educators across North Carolina and beyond. Although I grew up watching the space shuttles launch and following different missions, this direct connection on a virtual platform with this astronaut captured my attention and made me curious to learn more. I wasn’t able to be in the same room with her, but I felt connected.
I had this learning opportunity because of the Synergy Conference, the statewide convening for those engaged in expanded learning programming for youth. I was immediately reminded of the importance of the STEM Hub, STEM Coalition, and the network of out-of-school time programs that students across the state engage in as a part of their learning.
Out-of-school time programs are important for child care, but they also provide much more. Students get additional help with their schoolwork, have a safe place to grow and discover, and can be inspired by the exposure to a variety of potential careers. This is especially important during the time of COVID-19, as many of our afterschool programs had to switch from in-person to virtual almost overnight — just like our schools.
Afterschool or expanded learning opportunities have long been a critical resource and reliable partner to address the needs of the whole child. We had a chance to hear directly from students on what matters the most to them during the Youth Voices Panel at the Synergy Conference. Many referenced the relationships and the opportunity to pursue their interests.
I was struck by how important it is that we bring youth voices into our programmatic efforts and the differences it can make in how we can meet students’ needs. Many of the programs shifted to virtual options, but continued the offerings through technology and getting packets or other resources or science experiments in the hands of students, so that they were able to continue their learning and interests.
From potential careers, including many in STEM, to creating their own products and ideas, these students show us what is possible when our students have opportunities to explore their interests and passions with resources to support them. In a state with many, many job openings in STEM, understanding what it means to go into a career in STEM and to see a path toward an exciting career will make a huge difference for a student.
Having the opportunity to meet an astronaut or understand computer programming can open up doors for our students and help them forge an amazing future. Now, more than ever, students are seeing the importance of potential careers in STEM and also crave the connection and relationships that these programs offer more than ever before.
Investing in afterschool and expanded learning programs like these and having policies that support their sustainability and growth are critical, especially in a time of COVID.