The benefits of STEAM and after-school activities.
by Kelly Bryant
The pace of our high-tech world is constantly picking up speed, so much so that it can feel nearly impossible to keep up in any aspect of our lives. But what if instead of trying to catch up, we simply made the most of the time we have in a truly engaging way? That’s the approach of enrichment programs for children. Instead of merely trying to cram more hours of learning into the day (similar to how most of us are now always “on call” for our jobs), these learning opportunities are fun, relatable and, yes, rich with possibility.
Just ask Jennifer Montana, Ph.D., the founder and executive director of The Innovation Institute in Newtonville, which offers a plethora of STEM courses for kids ages 5 to 17.
“Enrichment programs for children can be magical places where dreams take shape as part of a nurturing experience of exploration, experimentation and risk taking in pursuing a domain that reflects a child’s own interest, passion and wonderment,” says Montana, who is also a mother of two. “Depending upon the student-to-teacher ratio, teaching and learning philosophy, and program structure and culture, children can blossom in these settings, whether focused upon music, pottery, dance, science, theater performance, engineering, math, visual art, cooking and the list continues.”
As a point of reference, The Innovation Institute has a maximum class size of 10, with a student-to-teacher ratio of 4:1. If you’ve taken a look at your child’s class roster recently, you know that’s realistically not the type of individualized attention they’re getting during the average school day. This isn’t to knock the traditional school environment – they have a lot on their plate.
“We ask schools to serve our children in so many capacities; accomplish myriad curricular goals, implement specific and, often, changing standards; and to do so equitably, often in the face of unfavorable student-to-teacher ratios and widely varying infrastructures,” says Montana. “We expect real learning to transpire, every student to be challenged, amongst students whose interests and capabilities range substantially within the same classroom. Schools, teachers, students and administrators work very hard to achieve these exceedingly difficult demands. The constraints of the required seem so often to undermine the vision and pursuit of learning, except at the margins.”
Enrichment programs are intriguing and, done correctly, extremely beneficial to kids, but often times they don’t come free. While there are affordable options, cost is certainly a factor for families on a budget, leaving many parents to wonder how young is too young to get a child involved in a course or workshop. After all, every dollar counts and budget-conscious families want to make sure their students will be engaged, not chasing butterflies (unless, of course, it’s a butterfly-chasing science experiment). There’s also the worry of overscheduling a child, particularly at a young age.
As the manager of school-age learning at Boston Children’s Museum (BCM), Cora Carey sees the benefits of enrichment programs every day, but she also understands the time constraints today’s families are under.
“The truth is, the benefits depend on the child and the family,” she says. “For my family, I can offer my kids exposure to concepts they may not get at their school, and I can support their interests in extracurricular topics. Enrichment programs can also be a great way for parents to get some quality time with just one kid if they have more than one. For other families, they may choose an enrichment class that lets their child express themselves creatively, build athletic skills, catch up in a subject area where they need a bit more support, or be exposed to a cultural tradition or art form that is meaningful to their family.”
At the same time, Carey doesn’t necessarily advocate rushing to sign a young child up for every class imaginable, thereby completely booking one’s weekend.
by Kelly Bryant
“I think there is a happy medium to be struck here. Just choose one or two things your kid has expressed an interest in, and take it from there.”
Carey’s first-grade son recently attended a Scratch Jr. workshop at BCM that was offered by their partner Einstein’s Workshop, an organization headquartered in Burlington. Scratch Jr. is the “training wheels” version of the coding program Scratch, which was developed by MIT media labs and currently is used on a global scale. This particular one-hour workshop gave kids the basics in coding and by the end of it they were creating their own video games.
“As a parent, I value workshops like this because although I could theoretically sit down with my son and work on Scratch Jr. with him myself, I find it hard to carve out time for that as a working parent of two young kids; plus, I have observed how much more readily and happily he picks up new skills when he is working with his peers,” says Carey. “So to have the chance to set aside a time, and then send him into a room with a bank of fully charged tablets, caring and competent instructors, and a bunch of other 6-year-olds is a gift – for me, and for him. And for my toddler, who gets my undivided attention for that hour.”
The Einstein’s Workshop STEM classes and workshops are targeted for students in grades K-5, with options that go beyond coding, like Stop-Motion Animation & Video Editing, 3-D Design & Printing and LEGO Robotics.
“My son has always been interested in STEM topics. I’m not sure anyone could grow up in my house and escape that, but I like that workshops like this show him different avenues and potentials for exploring his interests,” says Carey. “If he gets even a taste of coding, and has a rudimentary understanding of how a new app, program or device could be prototyped and developed, that lets him know that he can choose to be a creator of new technology, and not just a consumer of it.”
As parents, we’ve all witnessed a completely burned out kid at the end of a school day. After a full six-and-a-half hours of learning and processing new information (not to mention the energy spent on social interactions), your son or daughter may be a little fried. The thought of adding an extracurricular to the end of that day, no matter how fun or interesting, can be a concern to families who want to give these expanding minds a break.
“There is and should be a real concern about burnout,” says Montana. “It is unhealthy for some children to spend more time in a structured or semi-structured enrichment environment after a full day of school, where they have used stores of energy keeping themselves focused, on task and conforming to the institution’s norms.”
However, she notes that enrichment programs are veritable “oases of learning needed for sustenance.” Extending your child’s day is an individual choice that parents should look at on a case-by-case basis. Will they get a second wind? Is the course or activity something that will perk up the child’s mind after a full day?
“These programs can and do serve as intellectual respites and purposeful, social connections for young people,” she says. “There are students at The Innovation Institute who, when they cannot make a class, truly feel a sense of loss. They are eager to learn and to do so with peers who share their interests and sensibilities.”
Carey concurs, particularly when an out-of-school program is structured differently than the school day.
“If it allows for more flexibility and movement, both literally and figuratively, kids will generally respond quite positively,” she says.
by Kelly Bryant
Finding the Right Fit
If your child is blossoming beautifully during the traditional school day, you may wonder what enrichment classes can offer that could possibly do more. But enrichment often offers lessons in learning more effectively, giving students a different angle on education. Looking at a similar subject from a variety of vantages is a skill that can have lasting benefits well beyond the primary school years.
“Some children are auditory learners, while others are visual and/or kinesthetic learners,” explains Montana. “The answer to more effective learning involves small class sizes, hands-on opportunities to learn and inquiry-based approaches that facilitate the learner’s learning rather than a display of the instructor’s understanding through information dissemination. The guided facilitation methods require patience, high-level teaching skills and content expertise. In return, it provides the learner and teacher valuable information in real time about the effectiveness of the learning transpiring. If the learning is favorable, it can be seen in the development of analytical/critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills and approaches to redefining challenges and designing and developing solutions to them.”
For the typical family, cost is going to be an issue when exploring enrichment options, with some being more affordable than others. Do your research, ask other parents about their child’s experiences and pay attention to the types of learning opportunities that pique your little one’s interest.
“Try to find a class that you can realistically afford and attend without undue stress,” says Carey. “If you are conflicted about the class, your kids will pick up on that and will feel unsure whether they are supposed to enjoy it or not. Do what works for your family, and try to ignore societal pressures to sign your kids up for a million things – they will have plenty of time! And, as always, talk to other parents. I find this to be the most reliable source of information. Above all, try and support your kids’ interests.”
As the superheroes of the education system, many teachers are looking for hands-on, creative ways to increase the impact of a lesson, getting a little enrichment of their own to deliver to their students. Local museums, like the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, are partnering with teachers and organizations to deliver specific content that fits right in their wheelhouse.
“The museum is really focusing its messaging on water, water engineering and water science. We’re dealing with stories on localized drought, water contamination, lead contamination in drinking fountains, etc.,” explains Suanna Selby Crowley, manager of outreach and development for Waterworks.
While they don’t offer after-school enrichment programs directly for students, their interaction with secondary and elementary school teachers is helping young people become acquainted with life sciences within the Massachusetts framework.
“We’re really looking at topics related to water engineering,” says Crowley. “How do steam engines work? How do you break down the complexity of the steam engine? We do demonstrations with a baby medicine syringe and you can create a pressurized system and you see the reaction to get an idea of the push and pull mechanics. We do lots of education based on public health and water. We do demonstrations on filtration. It’s very visual and very immediate so you see there is this issue of how our water is treated chemically and mechanically.”
With Massachusetts in its most intense draught in possibly 50 years, she sees more teachers reaching out about the logistics of teaching the subject.
“The cloud cycle, the ground water cycle … those really do connect the life science elements that teachers are talking about,” says Crowley. “We really like to compare and contrast the differences between the natural water cycle and the delivered water cycle. We’ve engineered ways to get water right into our homes, so we discuss how that works and what it takes to keep it working and clean.”
Kelly Bryant is the associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.