Why Digital STEM Initiatives Are a Valuable Investment

Imagine chaperoning a fourth-grade field trip. The permission slips are signed, snacks are packed, and students are running in excitement toward the destination: a lava-spewing volcano. Thankfully, this is a virtual trip. Your students are navigating the fiery geological phenomenon from the safety of a screen.

This experiential learning is made possible by the creative education teams who build digital science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) resources. This is the “show, not tell” model in action: high-quality digital media, interactive learning, and embedded games that bring STEM concepts to life, inside or outside the classroom.

This model, a lifesaver during the time of school shutdowns, has clear benefits going forward. As was the case pre-Covid, many students score below proficient in STEM subjects. Recent data from NWEA suggests that catching up to grade level may take students three to five years, with low-income, Black, and Hispanic students on average far behind where they would have been if not for Covid-related learning disruptions. There is no time to waste to close this widening gap.

But, there’s only so much schools can do given that children spend 80 percent of their time outside the classroom. That’s why affordable and scalable solutions that engage students in STEM learning beyond the classroom are essential.

The best out-of-school STEM programs blend joy and rigor, meaning they help address gaps in academic skills and increase STEM engagement by designing learning environments that foster curiosity, collaboration, and, of course, fun. Many of these programs are in-person, but digital versions are starting to proliferate, putting learning at a student’s fingertips and providing more exploratory breadth and adaptivity than in-person programs can provide.

And while it’s true that digital out-of-school programs can’t replace the hands-on aspect of STEM, they do play a critical role in increasing accessibility and affordability of such opportunities for families during summer and afterschool, while also fostering social-emotional development and executive function.

Educators, always resourceful, are helping families discover innovative, digital tools to immerse kids in STEM learning anytime, anywhere, transforming student learning and parent engagement. For example, MathTalk’s augmented reality app Measure Everything uses technology to bring math to life, letting kids measure things in their house with 3D objects in the app (like dinosaurs). Using MathTalk’s Math Trails, kids can discover virtual installations embedded in playgrounds and parks that spark playful opportunities for open-ended math exploration and conversation.

Marsha Lee, a district mathematics specialist for Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia and a parent herself, has seen firsthand how MathTalk extends math moments into everyday dialogue. ”We’ve had competitions where our students were able to design some of these math trails themselves,” said Lee in a July webinar hosted by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Overdeck Family Foundation. “Things that were installed include giant number lines, Venn diagrams, and different geometric pieces—it’s been a wonderful asset to our district.”

As with MathTalk, many digital STEM programs help parents and educators incorporate learning in informal ways to break down misconceptions such as “I’m not a math person” or “I don’t have a math brain.”

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The WNET Group’s television show Cyberchase, an Overdeck Family Foundation grantee, is designed to help children unlock excitement about math learning by introducing characters that employ math skills to solve problems, such as using decimals to rebuild a train track after it’s destroyed by the villain, Hacker. Children mirror this math thinking in complementary digital games and hands-on activities.

After viewing Cyberchase, children show significant increases in their interest in and attitudes toward math, researchers found. They also report higher levels of confidence in their ability to solve math problems and learn elements of the content presented in the episodes. These effects hold true for children of different ages, genders, and ethnicities.

“Good digital STEM learning experiences get at the heart of what makes STEM fun—they are active, participatory, and can be personalized to adapt to your child’s understanding, areas of growth, and interests,” said Norah Jones, a senior content producer focused on Early Learning at The WNET Group. “They can expand kids’ knowledge of the world to scenarios they can’t access in real life, and they’re sticky, meaning kids want to come back again and again to re-watch or replay content to deepen learning experiences.”

Also accessible digitally is LabXchange—a platform created by Amgen in partnership with Harvard, Khan Academy, and other education providers—which provides students and educators an online library of high-quality science resources. Simulated labs, which include topics like how coronavirus vaccines are made and how kinetic energy moves through a skate park, are available at different levels, so students can access advanced concepts from school or home. Educators can incorporate this content into customized learning journeys for their students, broadening their worldviews and experiences.

Digital STEM tools, like the ones described above, have the capacity to build students’ agency, ignite their passions, and accelerate learning. But, quality resources come at a cost; even when free to users such as MathTalk, Cyberchase, and LabXchange, these resources cost money to develop, maintain, and scale.

That’s why it’s critical that philanthropy support digital STEM experiences. Funders interested in improving these skills and mindsets can’t just look inside the classroom. They must invest in digital resources that make STEM accessible to diverse communities, empower families to engage in learning moments and collaborative play with their kids, and, most importantly, are fun and engaging to use for families and students of all tech backgrounds.

Gemma Lenowitz is a Program Officer at Overdeck Family Foundation for the Inspired Minds portfolio, which aims to build the next generation of creative problem-solvers by expanding access to engaging and challenging STEM learning experiences.