Fostering a Love of Learning: The YMCA is Inspiring Future Generations to Embrace STEM Through Year-Round Youth Development Programs

Fostering a Love of Learning: The YMCA is Inspiring Future Generations to Embrace STEM Through Year-Round Youth Development Programs

TL; DR: Today’s educators frequently tout the benefits of STEM, a teaching approach that unites science, tech, engineering, and math within a single cross-disciplinary program. If you’re seeking real-world opportunities for children to explore this discipline, look no further than the YMCA. The nonprofit is helping nurture critical thinking and problem-solving skills through year-round youth development programs at more than 1,000 sites nationwide. With a focus on gender-equitable practices, the Y is putting STEM programming within reach for all children.

As adults, we see the benefits of STEM education through the lens of logic.

We know that occupations in science, technology, education, and math pay well, with 93 out of 100 STEM careers bringing in salaries above the national average. We acknowledge that a strong presence in these fields is essential for sustained economic growth. And we recognize that STEM education lays the foundation for future innovation.

The YMCA logo

The YMCA provides year-round STEM activities.

But while all these facts are true — and exceptionally relevant to our nation’s success — they’d put the average child to sleep.

Fortunately, the YMCA has a long history of viewing the world through the idealistic eyes of our youth — and today, it’s using that strength to engage them in year-round STEM activities. Available nationwide, these programs introduce young learners to STEM by igniting their innate curiosity.

The nonprofit takes a holistic approach to STEM programming that aims to address the access gaps faced by underrepresented students. Through creative, hands-on learning opportunities, the Y imparts an important message on children of all genders and socioeconomic classes: STEM is fun — really fun!

Nurturing Self-Confidence and Problem-Solving Skills

The Y offers its STEM programming through year-round opportunities at 1,000 locations nationwide, including STEM in summer camps and afterschool programs. To keep students engaged, the nonprofit features a range of programming that teach science, technology, engineering, and math concepts through hands-on learning and play.

From Lego-based robotics to the science of slime, these activities encourage active exploration, helping children test their ideas, assess results, and explain their discoveries in an immersive, hands-on way.

According to the Y, youth who participate in such activities are at a significant advantage in numerous areas, as STEM involvement provides children with the tools they need to solve problems, develop critical-thinking skills, embrace failure, work with others, and build self-confidence.

These skills are sorely needed, especially in the U.S. Take problem-solving, for example. A 2016 report published by the National Center for Education Statistics placed American workers at the bottom of a list of 18 industrialized nations in terms of problem-solving skills.

The statistics are equally grim when it comes to self-confidence, with studies indicating a correlation between low self-esteem and poor academic achievement. On the flip side, programs shown to boost self-esteem can reduce the incidence of antisocial behavior, vandalism, and verbal and physical aggression within schools by 40% to 50%.

Then there’s the fear of failure. According to Jim Taylor, a professor at the University of San Francisco, debilitating anxiety among children in America is on the rise, causing them to avoid risk at the cost of their own success.

Rather than stoke panic, these statistics should illustrate the potential of STEM education as a remedy for societal ailments. Yes, problems exist, but through accessible STEM programming such as those offered by the Y, we can provide our youth with unique tools to fuel both intellectual and emotional growth.

Promoting Inclusion Through Gender-Equitable Practices

Women may make up half of the global population, but they are significantly underrepresented in STEM-based fields. The National Science Board found that women constituted just 28% of the science and engineering workforce in 2018. Black and Latina women face the greatest disparities, representing fewer than 1 in 20 employed scientists and engineers.

When it comes to K-12 education, the National Science Foundation found that girls and boys do not differ in terms of math and science ability, but there is a disparity in both their interest and confidence in STEM subjects.

The absence of role models may play a part in this inequality. A recent study conducted by Microsoft in partnership with KRC Research found that 64% of girls and 56% of young women do not know a woman in a STEM profession. The same study revealed that girls who are encouraged by a parent are more likely to study computer science in high school, as are middle school girls who participate in STEM activities.

The Y is committed to promoting women in STEM by incorporating gender-equitable practices into its programming. YMCA branches are placing an intentional emphasis on helping girls to realize their potential. Afterschool and summer youth leaders are even being offered training designed to help them understand the impact they can have on closing the STEM opportunity gap.

Throughout the year, the Y encourages youth to build equity across gender divides by providing ideas for outdoor activities that any counselor can take on. These affordable concepts included a shadow tracking experiment used as a mechanism for learning about the movement of the earth and an innovative problem-solving challenge requiring nothing more than water and a bucket.

Playful Starter Activities and Stories from Real-Life Youth

Parents and young learners can get a look at how children across the U.S. are benefiting from the Y’s STEM programming by viewing the nonprofit’s “Your Y. Your Camera. Your Story.” campaign. Through five videos, the Y tells the stories of children in California, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, and North Dakota who leveraged resources at the Y to nurture their STEM interests.

Maridee, a 12-year-old girl in Indiana, was given the opportunity to learn about math, science, and computers through the Valparaiso Family YMCA’s LEGO® Mindstorms program.

“The teachers did a really great job of talking her through what she was doing and how she could improve,” said Maridee’s mother, Sheri, in a video on the Y’s STEM site. “She started problem-solving and really enjoyed the process and the pride she was feeling. It made a big difference for her in school — she started taking those problem-solving skills to the classroom.”

The experience ultimately shifted the girl’s perspective on science as a whole. “I used to think that science was really boring, and I used to try to get out of it, and now that I understand a lot more about it, I really like it,” Maridee said.

To discover similar opportunities in your area, contact your local Y. In the meantime, the nonprofit has provided a number of at-home or in-classroom activities that you can access for free online. Here are a few we’re partial to:

Creative Thinking Through Chromatography (Grades K-6)

Intended for younger children, the Chromatography Mysteries activity is an hour-long exploration of color that equips students with the ability to form hypotheses, generate creative solutions to problems, and make sound judgments. The exercise, submitted by the YMCA of Northern Utah, requires inexpensive materials, such as coffee filters, a sponge, a plastic cup, dry erase markers, permanent markers, and water.

A rainbow of colors

The Y provides engaging STEM-based activities that you can try at home.

The simple experiment packs a serious punch in its ability to illustrate chromatography, the study of color; and solubility, one substance’s ability to dissolve within another. By the end of the session, students will have gained a general understanding of how dyes and colors are produced in products.

Investigation and Design: The Parachute Challenge (Grades K-8)

Young learners can flex their investigative and design skills via the Parachute Challenge, another inexpensive, hour-long exercise using basic materials such as coffee filters, paper clips, string, scissors, and tape.

Intended to be completed via teamwork, the activity challenges youngsters to design a parachute that stays in the air longer than those of competing teams. But before jumping to conclusions, they’ll need to make multiple predictions, determine a plan, and back it up with evidence.

Regardless of whether or not they win the competition, students will learn all about the elements of problem-solving, including making observations, questioning, planning an investigation, sharing results, and engaging in reflective discussion.

Experiment with the Principles of Flight (Grades 3-8)

Our third pick, the Principles of Flight Challenge, is designed to help young learners grasp basic physics concepts through experimentation and engineering. This activity requires the most simple of materials — white paper, paperclips, and a pencil — and lasts only 50 minutes.

Created for slightly older learners in grades three through eight, the experiment involves designing, testing, and redesigning paper airplanes to meet different criteria in the areas of lift, weight, thrust, and air resistance. This management yet effective exercise works wonders in illustrating the principles that engineers must consider when designing aircraft.

Ultimately, activities like these are just one part of the Y’s holistic approach to youth development, which encourages children of all backgrounds to become competent and healthy adults. For more details on how the Y can help youth embrace STEM in your area, visit Find Your Y.

Christine Preusler

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