Providing STEM Opportunities Through Afterschool

Economic and education thought leaders throughout the country agree: students are better prepared to compete in today’s global economy when they have strong backgrounds in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). America’s fastest growing industries are in the STEM fields, yet there is a serious skills gap. In many cases, these high-paying jobs go unfilled because candidates lack the necessary training. To equip youth in their communities with the skills required to excel in the global economy, municipal officials are increasingly turning to afterschool programming as a venue for STEM exposure and instruction.


STEM as a Workforce Development Strategy

For young people in Umatilla, Ore., a city of 7,000 with an agriculture-based economy, becoming a programmer or an engineer has not always been a natural career path. In addition, poverty and unemployment are above the national average. Given this, Umatilla educators face a unique set of challenges in promoting academic success and career readiness. According to Heidi Sipe, Umatilla School District Superintendent, Umatilla students do not opt out of higher education because they lack potential; rather, they simply have not been aware of the range of postsecondary opportunities and experiences available to them. In an effort to expand students’ understanding of their options, the Umatilla School District spearheads an extensive afterschool program focused on STEM learning.

With funding from various foundation grants and support from local colleges and community organizations, Umatilla has instituted the “STEM Academy” program for K-12 students. Programming is designed for all different age groups, with the intention of fostering an early interest in math and science that is nurtured through middle and high school.

Umatilla educators are not reinventing the wheel; they are taking advantage of ready-made resources from FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that designs accessible, easy-to-implement STEM programming.

FIRST LEGO League Program

Through the FIRST LEGO League program, adult instructors lead elementary and middle school students to use LEGO pieces to build and learn from working models. Beginning in kindergarten and continuing through elementary and middle school, students are continually exposed to real-world science and technology concepts and challenges. Such opportunities for STEM enrichment continue for Umatilla high school students with the FIRST Robotics Competition, where teams of students build and program a robot to perform selected tasks.

Umatilla, Ore., FIRST Robotics Team. Credit:

Professional and peer mentoring are central to the FIRST program curriculum. Through Intel’s PC Pals program, Umatilla middle school students are able to consult with Intel professionals several times a week regarding their projects. Other mentors are enlisted from Oregon FIRST Robotics to advise student teams and to offer insight advice about careers in the STEM fields. Graduates of Umatilla’s STEM programs often return to mentor students.

With the support of school district staff, Umatilla intentionally incorporates state education standards into their afterschool STEM curriculum, using the Oregon Department of Education’s Skill Set guidelines as a framework for further extracurricular programming. Students are able to dive into a number of science and tech-related fields, including horticulture, agribusiness and geology.

In a community where STEM careers are not commonplace and educational resources are often stretched thin, Umatilla leaders have rallied around a mission to provide students with competitive academic environments where they are exposed to new career fields. High levels of community involvement and support have paid off: in both 2013 and 2014, the Umatilla Robotics Team qualified for and competed in the world robotics team championships.