In the real world, failure is often viewed as a disappointment. Whether we blame our shortcomings on others or the world at large, when we don’t achieve our goals or embody our envisioned success, we often feel helpless.
For children, this sentiment can be particularly challenging. Throughout their lives, there are countless benchmarks for them to meet. Whether kids need to achieve kindergarten readiness or obtain good grades or excel at exams, the threat of failure is imminent and measured against ever-growing, occasionally impossible standards.
The good news is afterschool programming can change this mindset. And even more refreshingly, some of the most well-paying, in-demand jobs require failure as the path to creativity, critical thinking, and innovation! The fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), in particular, demand a curious mind and a desire to experiment; the outcome is less important than the experience.
What better place than afterschool programming for kids to learn, engage, and develop these skills, possibly for a future career? Meanwhile, the lesson emanates – you can and should make a mistake; you’re learning. We all are.
Beyond School Bells, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s afterschool network, Nebraska 4-H Youth Development, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Honors Program had the right idea when they kickstarted their “winternship” program. What better place for kids to learn STEM than after school? Unlike the traditional school day, educators aren’t teaching to a test-based standard, which means more fun, autonomy, and flexibility.
Led by UNL Honors Program in partnership with Nebraska 4-H, winternships provide undergraduate Honors students with paid teaching/mentorship opportunities. These college students created opportunities for students ages 8-12 to create, learn, and most of all, fail magnificently throughout a variety of quality STEM Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELOs).
To delve deeper into this subject, we visited with the brains behind this operation: Kathleen Lodl, Associate Dean of Extension at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Tracy Pracheil, 4-H Extension Educator; Julie Boyle, 4-H Dakota County Extension Educator; and Jill Lingard, 4-H and Evaluation Extension Specialist.
We also visited with Jeff Cole, Beyond School Bells’ Network lead, who concurs that behind every STEM failure lies innovation and even the start of future careers.
“The unique thing about STEM and afterschool is that STEM subjects can require exploring the unknown, which sometimes means failing.”
Julie agrees, along with the rest of the team, that afterschool allows kids to safely learn, play, and flesh out their passions with more flexibility than the traditional school day.
According to Julie, “Afterschool is not held to [testing] standards. During the school day, kids are tested for these standards. We can teach after school in our own way. We can use so many learning methods so kids can have their own individualized experiences.”
For Jeff, failure is central to quality STEM learning.
“The unique thing about STEM and afterschool is that STEM requires failing,” said Jeff. “School doesn’t deal well with failure, and grades don’t reflect failure well. Whereas we know failure is important for STEM learning; kids can grow from it without being penalized,” he said.
Behind every great STEM afterschool program is a committed team – and a strong partnership. Jill said that she and her colleagues have remained intentional as they selected curriculum and program activities for the winternship.
“As we use a curriculum that’s not connected to school, we can supplement [children’s] daily learning. [STEM] is a great match for project-based playful learning for kids’ growth and success and ready for jobs that drive Nebraska’s future,” she said.
Tracy agrees. Like any compelling learning experience, this initiative took time. Tracy said the team began planning back in the late fall.
According to Tracy, “In November, the [UNL] Honors Program approached students willing to lead these activities with youth. At that point, we were thinking about how to use our [Nebraska] Extension network to identify sites where we could hold workshops.”
As the team drew plans in the sand, the outline came to fruition – STEM learning and all. But as with any quality initiative, Tracy and her partners began to assess how to create an engaging program. Luckily, time was on their side!
Pracheil continued: “We wanted to prepare the UNL [Honors] students to lead a series of activities, so we thought about Nebraska’s educational priorities, among which is STEM education. National 4-H Council developed a new 4-H STEM Challenge in October, just in time to purchase [educational] kits with supplies!”
The intergalactic travel theme for the winternships proved to be popular with both UNL students and workshop participants! The UNL Honors students underwent rigorous training to prepare them for leading the workshops.
“We trained UNL students who completed the activities with youth,” said Tracy. This year’s reach consisted of 11 UNL students who led 12 4-H workshops for over 120 youth in communities across Nebraska during the winter school break.
Intentionality, it seems, is a theme throughout these winternship programs. “Consistency is essential when producing quality ELOs,” commented Cole. He continued: “We’re going to provide a continuity of service, so it doesn’t just pop up on the radar screen, but students are thinking very intentionally throughout the year.”
When asked how this idea came about, Lodl was happy to explain. “We have students on campus who are eager but may not have the opportunity to work with younger youth. How can we get them to work with youth?”
Shortly after, Nebraska 4-H, BSB, and partners concluded that they could fill the gap and create a win-win situation for Nebraska K-12 kids and UNL Honors students alike. The team wanted to engage college students with multifaceted interests.
According to Lingard, “Students are looking for ways to engage inside and outside of their disciplines, in and out of the state. We’re able to serve in a connector role, which is a prime opportunity when students are out of school, as [afterschool programs] aren’t served during winter break, and we can provide a rich, short-term intensive experience.”
The team agreed that these plans are only the beginning. The team is currently working with UNL students interested in youth development on a PYD Learning Lab.
The PYD Lab is a mechanism for young leaders who want to create positive youth development and share their fellow leaders’ successes who engage young people in their communities.
According to Pracheil, “The PYD Learning Lab is for UNL students interested in youth development. We’ve been working with them in semester-long roles during the summer and for winternship experiences.”
From there, Tracy said that she and her cohort continued to build out a STEM mentoring program. Once again, the team worked to professionalize UNL students.
“The PYD Learning Lab is designed to bring [UNL Honors] students on for a whole semester, where they’ll come in and lead 4-H development programs, connect, and learn from other youth professionals throughout the state. [College students] will work with youth who aren’t too much younger than they are and can build them as students.”
Meanwhile, back at the winternship, UNL students executed some lively, quality STEM experiences that were out of this world, especially as the lessons emphasized intergalactic travel!
Tracy said, “We focused on three activities: Cosmic Claw, which involved creating a mechanical arm. Cosmic Claw was the one that I heard most about – there was also a telescope activity about physics, light, and exploring space in that capacity. Then, Cyber Satellite, a decoder kit that allowed students to decode messages, which helped kids learn about obstacles in orbit.”
Tracy said the training prepared UNL Honors students to ask the children compelling questions that prompted critical thinking. In addition to the UNL students being thoughtful, Tracy said they hailed from a wide variety of majors. One of the best surprises was witnessing college-age students learning along with the K-12 ones!
“One UNL student was majoring in music,” said Tracy. “He said that if he had a [STEM] learning experience like this as a child, he would have considered pursuing science as a major!” she said.
Another major win, said Jill, included the value of mentorship. College students who endure equally if not greater pressures are the ideal mentors for young people, especially when sparking a passion for college.
“Whether coaching or mentoring, this opportunity called to [UNL Honors students] because it was a [chance] to give back to young people. We got messages from students asking for other ways to engage and connect. For at least this group, we hit a passion point for wanting to mentor young people!” she said.
According to Kathleen, one of the major selling points to having undergraduates lead these expanded learning experiences includes their appeal to children: “There’s the ‘cool factor’ of a [child] learning from a college student.”
Julie said she had a similar experience. “Here, we’ve worked with Early Education community college students to either be an afterschool program employee or do activities,” she said.
“Kids LOVE making that connection, and the wheels start turning in children’s minds! Seeing that lightbulb moment is kind of cool.”
Kathleen said that forging these mentor-mentee connections is imperative to successful learning and possibly college readiness!
“Younger kids in communities see college students as mentors, friends, and role models,” said Kathleen. College students can even answer questions such as what it’s like to be a college student. In some cases, these kids who may not have considered college may eventually do so!”
Julie said that this form of emotional and educational support is important for children who hail from difficult backgrounds.
“[This programming is especially productive for at-risk kids who may not have considered attending college,” said Julie. “Afterschool really minimizes the barriers.”
Kathleen said that she hopes to continue this positive synergy.
“We’re seeing an influence from college students; here’s an example: We had a first-generation college student who came back to campus and changed her major based on what she taught the young students. She decided to go into engineering!”
Kathleen said that in addition to sparking kids’ interests, college students find these activities embody an exciting field; they may choose to pursue STEM careers as well!
“It’s pretty common to not know what engineering is,” said Kathleen.
“Young people are afraid of STEM,” said Kathleen. “They think, ‘That is not me.’ By offering a hands-on experience, whatever that is, [K-12 students] are learning and engaging, and you start connecting them with a career.
From there, Kathleen said, young people can meet Nebraska’s burgeoning demands for STEM job candidates.
“We help [K-12 students] connect the dots; they start filling the pipeline, and Nebraska needs to fill many STEM jobs!”
Still, there are more expanded learning opportunities to come! The team continues, this whole time, to invest in and train quality leaders.
But according to Kathleen, learning how to work with children is another desirable trait.
“One person has an engineering firm and taught a robotic afterschool club in their firm. Kids say, ‘Wow, I’m talking to a real engineer! Our job is to help an expert in the area learn how to work with kids. Some people are scared of STEM; some are scared of working with kids.”
Some of the group’s objectives include collaborating with other organizations, developing relationships with families, and expanding their programs.
For Tracy, building trust with families is essential, especially as we expand into different learning forms.
“From a marketing standpoint, youth, adolescents, and parents know they can rely on 4-H; [communities] know [UNL students] can educate youth wherever they may be, whether, in their home or after school.”
Julie said she wants to see these accomplishments continue to spread throughout the state.
“The winternships can eventually take place not just in the UNL Honors Program, but on the East and City [UNL] campuses, all the while getting all of those different majors involved.”
Still, the group projects even more future successes.
Cole added that this unique partnership with Extension and Honors is a perfect fit for BSB’s ongoing work as part of the national Million Girl Moonshot initiative, designed to expand the concept of who can be a STEM learner and, eventually, a STEM professional through high quality, engaging afterschool and summer programs that use mentors to excite, engage and inspire Nebraska youth.
“In a year, we’ll have realized the design around our PYD cohort model. These students will take us places we don’t even know yet,” said Jill.
For Beyond School Bells and partners, maybe intergalactic space travel is only the beginning.