We live in a world where so much of an educator’s time is spent “teaching to the test,” – leaving precious few minutes for authentic, hands-on learning projects. Throw in pandemic-forced “hybrid” scheduling, and those project-based learning opportunities get even more difficult to integrate. STEM Clubs are a fun and effective way to bridge that gap. STEM Clubs allow students to collaborate and socialize while bringing together all the important parts of STEM Education.
Deciding how to start a STEM Club from scratch feels like a daunting challenge. Where should you start? There are a few things you’ll definitely need to do before your STEM Club begins, and a few factors you won’t want to leave out during the planning and implementation stages. We’re here to hold your hand through the process. (Virtually of course! Because germs.) Let us take you through each stage of your STEM Club launch, from creating a strategic vision to coming up with STEM Club ideas and projects, and finally – competitions!
What is an afterschool STEM Club?
An afterschool STEM club is a gathering of students and their peers, faculty, support staff, community partners, and even parent volunteers who meet to serve one main goal – enriching their STEM content knowledge through projects, activities, and investigations conducted safely and collaboratively in a blended social and academic environment. (Whoa there run-on sentence. Check yourself.) The short version: It’s where kids and their friends hang out outside of class to have fun and learn at the same time!
STEM Education is critical right now. The STEM definition refers to the mindset of overlapping interconnected disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and math. Bringing them all together in meaningful ways with limited class time can be difficult. So figuring out how to start a STEM club could be one of the greatest commitments you can make to furthering your student’s (or child’s) understanding of STEM concepts.
Why does STEM learning matter, and why should you start a STEM Club in the first place?
The demand for good STEM Education relates directly to the gap in the STEM field right now. The employment rate continues to rise. STEM careers are anticipated to increase 8% from 2019-2029, more than double the projected increase in non-STEM occupations. According to a paper published in 2017 by the American Society for Engineering Education, approximately 48% of bachelor’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 had left those fields by the spring of 2009. Half of those ship jumpers went into non-STEM majors.
There’s a confidence issue surrounding STEM fields, and it begins manifesting itself at a very young age. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve probably said it before. “Math is so hard.” “Science is boring!” “Coding is complicated.” Sound familiar?
Incredibly, afterschool STEM programs are breaking down barriers of self-efficacy in science and mathematics, increasing technology confidence, and expanding digital literacy. Frequency builds fluency in STEM subjects.
The United States Department of Education allocated 1.19 billion dollars (yes, that’s a B for billion) to 54 states and territories for after school programming in the 2017-2018 school year. Funds were allocated through their 21st Century Community Learning Center’s Grant Program (CCLC). That is a serious boatload of federal cash supporting a cause that is statistically proven to improve attendance, homework completion rates, math and science grades, standardized test grades – and all the while increasing confidence in a myriad of marketable job skills.
How to Start a STEM Club in 5 Easy Steps
At Thimble, we’ve got serious experience starting our own virtual STEM club that brings learners from all 50 states, and 40 countries, together. Our little STEM Club is hyperfocused on electronics, coding, robotics, and engineering for kids ages 10-18, but yours doesn’t have to be! You might want to know how to start a STEM Club in elementary school. There are even concepts and pre-formal education activities that are STEM-focused and age-appropriate at a preschool level. I know this because I taught preschool STEM activities once a month for four years. Kids loved it, and their parents did too! STEM for kids below middle school looks much different than STEM for older students. Regardless of your focus age, following the steps outlined here can get you quickly on your way to an engaging successful program.
Step 1: Create a strategic STEM vision.
Well, that sounds fancy, but all your doing is creating identifiable end-goals. Do you want your students to just have fun and gain some informal exposure, or does your STEM plan include assessing specific learning goals at the end of each year? Do you want to do fun projects to show off to other faculty, or do you want to compete in local or state competitions? You should make sure that your end-goals are:
In line with your district’s STEM goals (which are likely aligned to state standards or Next Generation Science Standards.)
Age-appropriate for your target audience
Attainable – and if your end-goals are formal, be sure they are also measurable.
Creating your strategic STEM vision might also involve specializing your club. Do you want your STEM club to hyperfocus on a particular field, such as coding, space, and aeronautics, or environmental sustainability? These can give your club focus and direction. Note: Your club does NOT need to niche down to be successful. You can create thematic units that cover multiple STEM education topics or change the club’s focus every year. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to how to start a STEM club.
Step 2: Explore Local, State, and National level STEM Competitions
Choosing a competition to focus on can really help with the development of the strategic vision for your STEM club. Choosing a competition can give you a steady focus when planning activities and learning modules for your STEM programs. Enrolling seems to light a fire under participants as well. Nothing brings out the best (and sometimes the worst) in a kid like a little healthy competition. Winning can be just the reward your students need to start suddenly throwing themselves into their STEM education. STEM Club ideas that lead to appearances in competition create incentives for learning and success.
iDTech has developed a comprehensive list of many STEM competitions. Doing your own research may turn up competitions that aren’t listed there. When choosing a competition, pay attention to costs associated with registration, as well as costs for materials and resources that your club will need to be successful. Some STEM Clubs don’t have the funding to participate in all competitions.
Be aware of the other clubs you’re up against. Some STEM Schools can dominate a particular competition year after year. Nothing is stopping you from becoming one of those STEM schools that carve out your niche in the competitive STEM world.
Step 3: Find Your STEM Curriculum
Every STEM Club needs a curriculum with purpose, direction, and some kind of measurable goals. This task can seem daunting at the gate. It seems as though there is an endless array of STEM literature at your fingertips. You can choose your own curriculum, or invest in STEM kits with preplanned activities and ready-to-launch projects. STEM learning can look like so many different things. If you don’t know where to start, we’ve compiled plenty of resources for you to pull from:
Teach Engineering has projects and activities from Elementary to High School for your students to work through. Handpick STEM Club ideas that lend themselves to your strategic vision and focus area.
Engineering is Elementary (EiE) is another great resource with education and training materials for students from preschool to high school.
Girlstart is a great place to get STEM project ideas and a free curriculum.
NASA offers educator and student resources for space centered STEM activities.
Terrific Science has over 300 free and downloadable lesson plans and activities that would fit right into your STEM education curriculum.
PBS Design Squad offers activities, videos, and educational materials for free
iSprowt has some interesting science kits for the younger kids in your STEM club – ages 5-11.
If you’re looking for a secondary level curriculum package that is completely designed, ready to launch, and requires little prep time on your part, STEM kits could be your answer. Thimble’s standards-aligned curriculum comes complete with full material kits, online learning modules, and live classes twice a week.
Step 4: Name Your Club
Believe it or not, pretty soon this club will be your baby. So give it a name that won’t get it shoved into a locker. You’ll want to choose a club moniker that makes kids want to participate. Simply calling it a STEM Club may not garner the turnout you’re hoping for. If you’re planning on choosing a specific STEM learning topic, you could use your club’s name to give students an idea of what kind of STEM learning topic they will be focusing on during meetings.
The first impression a student gets from your club will be the first time they read the STEM Club name on a poster or flyer. If you want to know how to start a STEM club, trust us when we say it’s NOT by using words like “learning” or “school” in the title. We trick kids into eating vegetables in all sorts of creative ways, so don’t feel guilty about tricking a kid into entering a club you know they’ll fall in love with.
Step 5: Plan Out the Activities and Logistics
You’ve got your strategic STEM vision, curriculum, and a snazzy new name for your STEM club. Look at you go! (I thought you said you didn’t know how to start a STEM club?) It’s time to get into the meat and bones of the planning phase. Start with the basics, and plan from September to the end of the year, so that you are maximizing the benefits gained with your allotted time. Trust us, that time will fly by quicker than you think. There are some basic STEM Club ideas you need to iron out before you choose projects and activities:
Who is eligible and how will they enroll?
Decide who can participate. Is your STEM club for 8th-grade students, or the entire middle school? Will they enroll in their science class, send an email, or show up to an orientation meeting with parents to hear your goals? If you set an enrollment deadline, communicate it clearly in as many channels as possible. Flyers, morning announcements, social media, and word of mouth are all good starters. You don’t want students missing out on this great learning opportunity.
Where and how often will you meet?
You’re going to need a space to hold your meetings. Determine how much space you’ll need. Check for all the amenities necessary to successfully pull off STEM activities. Consider access to video equipment, outlets, sinks, tables, and any other essential resources you’re going to need.
Establish a clear set of club rules and guidelines.
STEM Club is an informal learning setting, but there still needs to be clear rules. STEM kits can be expensive and potentially dangerous. Maintaining a safe and productive environment will depend on how well your members follow your guidelines. These rules need to address student behavior, attendance policies, as well as clear safety protocols that all STEM clubs need to uphold.
5 Tips for Starting and Running Your Own STEM Club
Now that you have a solid roadmap, and some resources to use for developing a curriculum, let’s consider how to start a STEM club that students will come back to again and again. Check out some of our top tips and STEM club ideas outlined here:
1. Get a Sponsor and Community Partnerships
Funds are going to be crucial for the survival of your STEM club. Depending on your material and technology needs, as well as the curriculum you choose, it can get expensive. Just consider the singular cost of one 3-D printer. (All the cool kids are putting 3-D printers in their STEM labs.)
Once you have a concrete plan established, begin looking for potential sponsors to cover the funds necessary to run the club and purchase essential materials. Building a team of community partnerships is also very beneficial for a STEM club. Look for companies that benefit directly from the STEM workforce – local engineering firms, software developers, pharmaceutical distributors, or chemical companies. Not only are they great places to procure funding, but they could offer guest speakers and volunteers to enrich your planned curriculum. Community partnerships help your STEM club grow!
2. Plan Content
Plan an activity calendar that will act as your annual roadmap. This will allow you to make the most of your meeting times. If your STEM Club is participating in a long-term project, a milestone calendar can keep your students on track through each phase of the project. Layout this rough draft calendar in advance. Planning ahead is crucial to the productivity of your club, as well as your stress level. Consider having a few summer planning sessions with your chosen team to work out all of your STEM club ideas.
Plan activities in a logical order, and find ways that they might be interrelated. It’s helpful if they build upon each other. Don’t begin an activity without introducing key concepts. Make sure to set aside enough time during your meetings to review the main points of the STEM education content you’ve just completed, answer questions, and prepare your students for what is coming next. If you’re able to prepare take-home overviews of the completed projects, it can give parents a great insight into the content their children are getting from your STEM program.
3. Interact With Other Clubs
Find other clubs in the area. Reach out to their organizers and plan collaborative projects or group STEM talks. Your participants will engage with new peers, and you will have plenty of opportunities to learn about the positive ways other clubs are reaching their goals. Finding STEM Clubs whose participants are much younger or older than the members of your club can present mentoring opportunities.
Pay particular attention to STEM clubs who have been around longer than yours, and are well established. These other club organizers will have great STEM club ideas and insight on performing in competitions successfully. They may have suggestions for you regarding curriculum or projects that were successful STEM learning experiences for their own club.
4. Long Term Projects vs. One-Off Activities
Long Term Projects are the kind of STEM activities that can take an entire semester or an entire school year to complete. They’re usually aimed at awards or competitions. They allow you to take an in-depth and analytical approach to the key topic of your STEM Club project. Kids sometimes have trouble seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and long-term projects can seem overwhelming at first. Know your group when considering STEM club activities. Long-Term Projects can have a direct impact on the world around you.
One-off activities can be completed in 1-2 meetings. They are quick and highly engaging STEM projects. They offer almost immediate success and allow you to investigate many different STEM topics, from environmental sustainability to coding and robotics, and everywhere in between. These kinds of activities are usually not made for competitions, though there are some exceptions. They are the kinds of STEM club ideas that keep kids coming back every week.
5. Don’t forget to have fun!
At the end of the day, STEM Club attendance is completely voluntary. If you want your participants to return each week, you have to plan out engaging, fun STEM projects for kids. Be sure activities are age-appropriate, connected to real-world situations, and engaging.
Students aren’t the only ones who need to have fun. Have you ever heard the saying, “You can’t pour a glass of water from an empty pitcher.”? You’ll do your best work if you’re enjoying the program as well. You can’t run a successful STEM Club if you’re running on empty. Avoid burnout by creating a reliable team. Get other teachers on board, as well as parent volunteers who can brainstorm STEM Club ideas with you during summer planning sessions, as well as assist during meetings. You can even delegate responsibilities to elected student officers.
5 Cool STEM Project Ideas
These projects fall into a happy medium between long-term and one-off STEM projects for kids. We might be a little biased, but the following STEM Club project ideas are some of the best! These projects can be completed in 1-3 meetings, depending on the length of your meeting. They offer quick wins to keep your kids learning, loving your STEM Club ideas, and coming back for more:
1. Basic Circuits and Intro to Coding
This complete Creator’s Set will set you up for 12 unique projects using the same materials over and over again. It will teach your students about circuits and coding.
2. Wifi Robot
This robotics project will make your members feel like true engineers. They’ll create a wirelessly automated robot and learn about infrared waves, web servers, and programming language.
3. Augmented Reality Kit
This kit will give your members some great soldering experience while they build their own IMU Game kit. Imagine how accomplished they’ll feel building their own virtual reality game.
4. RGB Game Kit
This RBG Game kit is perfect for those students who are obsessed with gaming. It uses coding, circuitry, and electronics to create a video game controller that they can eventually program to their own Xbox or Playstation Game consoles.
5. Wifi Light Switch Kit
This kit will guide your students through the process of building and programming a wireless smart switch. They can turn their lights off remotely using a wireless device like a tablet or cell phone.
Take these tips, resources, and suggestions for how to start a STEM Club, and hit the ground running to make a resounding impact on the students in your life, and don’t forget the snacks! If you find yourself looking for more exciting STEM projects to integrate into your content calendar, check out Thimble’s kits and curriculum. Let us bring STEM to you!