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Afterschool Program Engages Youth in STEM Learning

by Frannie Sprouls and Aaron Mack

after school

Mentors Corey Schram (left) and Scott Sorensen (right) pose with RRRC students.

MATC, in collaboration with the Nebraska Department of Education, received funding from FHWA’s Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Education Program last year to expand its Roads, Rails and Race Cars (RRRC) afterschool program.

RRRC, which is entering its third year and has already impacted more than 1,000 students, was designed to educate 4th-12th grade students on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts and careers. The RRRC format consists of weekly hour-long clubs incorporating hands-on lessons and activities, which are led by university and community college graduate and undergraduate student mentors. The club's transportation engineering-based curriculum was designed to turn abstract scientific concepts into fun and informative lessons.

“Our intention is to teach the students and break down some of these more abstract concepts that really can get confusing in science, and to provide them with a tangible applicability,” said Cindy Baker, RRRC Program Coordinator, who is earning her Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We take these hands-on activities that are more visual, then connect them to abstract concepts, and it really aids in students’ cognitive development. Transportation really does bridge that so well because it’s very visible and applied. It’s very hands-on."

Each club session begins with a 10-15 minute presentation on the engineering lesson of the day given by undergraduate or graduate student mentors, who have academic backgrounds in STEM disciplines. The mentors also lead the hands-on activity that follows. Aside from being a source of information, mentors serve as examples of young people who have successfully transitioned to college and are pursuing STEM-related careers.

“The mentoring aspect is about fostering these positive relationships with the students, allowing them to see what it is that these college students are doing, and to be able to identify with them and say, ‘I could possibly see myself doing this someday,’” Baker said.

Following each lesson, students participate in a hands-on activity based on the engineering theme being studied. The lessons usually involve designing or building something tangible to illustrate an abstract scientific concept. A popular activity, for example, is “Edible Cars," where food items like Twizzlers, pretzels, granola bars, and frosting are used to construct a “car” that must be able to roll down a ramp. Students are instructed to use only the amount of materials that they will be capable of consuming within one minute and thirty seconds at the end of the lesson. Another popular activity is the “Sustainability” exercise, during which students are instructed to plan routes for bicycle transportation on a neighborhood map.

Each club session also provides information on different careers corresponding to the concept of the day. Some sessions are attended by guest-speakers from the professional community, who present information about their STEM careers.

Since RRRC was first implemented at Culler Middle School in Lincoln, NE during the 2010-2011 academic year, the program has expanded to nine other K-12 schools in the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) system. RRRC has also been established in Omaha Public Schools (OPS), as well as at two out-of-state sites in Boone, Iowa, and Madison, WI, which are coordinated by other university transportation centers. RRRC operates with 53 transportation-related lesson plans taught by 16 teacher partners and 29 undergraduate and graduate student mentors. In terms of impact, each year the program intends to reach at least 165 core participants, 20 summer program participants, and 1,320 students overall. This year, more than 350 students attended at least one club day. RRRC is currently exploring partnerships to continue the club during the 2013-2014 school year.