This is one of the saddest statements I hear from young people. I can almost guarantee it’s not true. When I talk to them, they’ve done things in science that I didn’t do until much later, and they can explain it better than I! So why don’t they see themselves as science learners?
Usually, it’s because they don’t enjoy science class in school. Non-formal education, such as an after-school program, can provide a more positive experience and help young people to see their own abilities and gain proficiency in science. According to the Final Report of the NRC Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, non-formal learning experiences help young people gain science content knowledge. Just as importantly, they help young people to learn skills and practices, the ability to think scientifically and thus see themselves as science learners.
The Next Generation Science Standards help define competence in science and engineering as more than just knowledge in those fields; there is an emphasis on proficiency in practices of science and engineering. There are eight essential practices:
- Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
- Developing and using models
- Planning and carrying out investigations
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Using mathematics and computational thinking
- Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
- Engaging in argument from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.
Another key ingredient is the presence of a caring adult versed in positive youth development. This caring adult provides guidance to a youth member throughout their project, helping them strive towards a goal that has meaning to them, supporting them through problems and disappointments, and encouraging them to master skills or practices. Through this process, youth develop a recognition of their own skills and gain confidence in their abilities to persevere during setbacks. And indeed, research by Vedder-Weiss and Fortus and by Britner and Pajares show that the support of a significant adult positively affects a young person’s engagement, perseverance, and belief in themselves in STEM-related challenges.
What are ways that you see non-formal education programs help youth gain proficiency in science and engineering practices? How do your programs help youth see themselves as science learners?
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