Written by Patrick Giblin, Development & Marketing Manager of After-School All-Stars, Washington DC
After-School All-Stars, Washington DC (ASAS DC) is a local charity focused on providing free after-school programs to low-income DC middle schools. A unique element of ASAS DC’s programming is our heavy emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, more affectionately referred to as STEM in the education sector. Across three DC wards and six schools, hundreds of students experience our free STEM offerings in the afterschool space every weeknight. Those offerings include classes such as digital photography, drone engineering, video game design, coding, real estate development and environmental science.
In addition to those classes this year, we have two dedicated “STEM Clubs” at Stuart-Hobson and John Hayden Johnson Middle Schools, where students can engage in purely STEM-related activities. Based on our participants’ interests, “STEM kits” and related curricula were acquired from the National Energy Education Development (NEED). NEED provides ample resources and training for our instructors to create quality STEM classes, and ASAS DC is uniquely positioned to implement the classes, providing it to students who need it the most. All-star’s students have consistently expressed an interest in environmental/conservation topics related to STEM, and as a result several of the NEED STEM kits are focused on alternative energy and environmental science.
ASAS DC sought to provide appropriate complements to these offerings, which is why we engaged with two leading organizations in the field. This past October and November, our chapter hosted two STEM-themed employee volunteer events with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Bechtel, respectively.
Specifically, scientists and education specialists from NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, Education and Community Involvement Branch visited Stuart-Hobson MS in October. They spent an afternoon with our students, sharing information on their work and completing three hands-on activities designed to educate youth on DNA and science more broadly. Students scraped their cheek cells and examined them under NIH microscopes, they extracted DNA from strawberries using a technique demonstrated by the science professionals, and completed a watercolor activity revolving around the shape and code within a DNA double helix. Fifteen ASAS DC students were exposed to high-level and engaging science subjects; they expressed interest in the scientists’ jobs and showed a desire to work with the microscopes every day!
A consistent aspect of our program has always been career exposure. Regardless of professional sector, it is important that our students are connected to reputable professionals who can not only describe their current work, but also their journey and obstacles they’ve had to overcome in order to be where they are now. Many of our students had not considered the possibility that they could do something like this for a living prior to this NIH engagement, which is why this exposure is invaluable.
Less than a month later, ASAS DC was contacted by the global engineering company Bechtel. Keith Hennessey, president of Bechtel Enterprises, serves on the board of ASAS DC. He also serves as an Executive Sponsor of Women@Bechtel, a business resource group within the company meant to promote the development of women’s careers. Members of this group expressed an interest in skills-based volunteering with underserved youth. What resulted was another successful collaboration in the same style as the NIH event that preceded it — this time dedicated to the engineering portion of STEM.
Four Bechtel engineers presented in front of a group of 15 Stuart-Hobson students in early November. Bechtel Fellow Kit Ng shared a presentation on Bechtel’s water treatment work. The presentation had tremendous resonance with our students who are extremely passionate about climate change issues, and they asked several questions about water filtration systems in the developing world as a result.
To bring this material to life, Bechtel provided a hands-on experiment very similar to NIH. Students split into teams and tested several water filtration techniques using materials brought in by the engineers. Students compared each solution, (grass, pebbles, coffee filters, cloth, etc.) and based on the information presented to them earlier, were able to discern which materials filtered the clearest water. These realizations were related to the earlier presentation of Bechtel doing the same work on a larger scale. With that connection, students had a newfound respect for this work. Not only increasing the quality of life for underserved communities but doing it an efficient and environmentally-friendly manner was of great interest to our youth. Bechtel staff were pleased to see this interest, and several of the students even asked about internships with the organization!
STEM is a complex and nuanced subject matter that lends itself to hands-on work. Any letter in that acronym is associated with high-level and detailed academic information. ASAS DC prides itself on effectively teaching these subjects to adolescent students in an engaging way and age-appropriate way. We cannot do that without the support of our partners and external organizations such as NIH and Bechtel. Not only do they possess the resources and expertise, but their respective staff genuinely care about underserved youth and are happy to volunteer their time in order to convey some of their experience to our students. Most importantly, our students are shown a clear path to success in these fields by having direct access to professionals who are eager to support them. We are humbled to be a part of that collective effort and will continue to use all resources at our disposal to provide the most impactful and highest quality experience to adolescents in the District of Columbia.