The future of one after school program looks uncertain because of COVID-19
Published 12:31 p.m ET Jul 27, 2021
After-school programs such as Nims’ STEM OUT are trying to find new life after the pandemic.
Amid the many schools that sent their students home to start remote learning, Tallahassee’s Nims Middle School had closed its doors, and that also meant a halt to after-school activities.
Now, with a new school year set to begin on Aug. 11, new opportunities may arise.
The pandemic brought closures, remote learning, and a host of challenges for students and educators. Among those — cutting down on after-school programs.
One such program that saw its end during the pandemic was STEM OUT, an after-school club started last year by three high school students Kenneth Green, Max Ngnepieba, and Apurva Srivastava, who was then the student School Board member.
From left to right: Calvin, 12, Shawnderricka Owens, 13 and Javiyen Watkins, 12, participating in a Nims Middle School STEM Out program in February 2020, Maria Hiers/Special Democrat
The STEM program, formally known as “STEM OUT,” was made with goals of increasing representation of underprivileged and minority kids in the STEM area.
Before schools closed in March 2020 because of COVID-19, the program met every other week.
The trio introduced the idea to the board as an example of a program that could be expanded to other schools, with financial support.
“We know that there are other students, other schools that need this program,” Srivastava said at the time. “These kids are genuinely excited about learning.”
Middle school is key time
For this type of program, the founders figured that the earlier you plant the interest of science, the stronger it’ll grow.
“Middle school is where you figure out more about personality; the music you like, the sports you like, your style,” Ngnepieba said.
Before COVID-19, the founders presented their idea to the School Board and said most of their experiments — which have included extracting DNA from strawberries — can be completed with items found at a Dollar Tree store. They said the program was a necessary way to draw more Black students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Before Spring Break of 2020, the high school students were consistently holding meetings after school in the library. All students who were interested in learning about STEM were welcome to join.
Among these experiments, students learned more about chemistry and physics interactively. In their last meeting, the students built a rocket that they launched across the library.
“STEM encourages experimentation and academic growth. Since the start of the programs, we have seen more active engagement from our students and our in-house assessments for science has indicated that shift,” Principal Benny Bolden of Nims Middle School said.
Virtual program too challenging
As with all schools during the pandemic, Title 1 school on West Orange Avenue in the southwest of Tallahassee struggled to adapt to the challenges of remote and fewer in-person learners, and with the constraints of teaching to state standards during a crisis.
Throughout COVID, there were talks of continuing the STEM program virtually, but it was too much of a challenge, where access to a computer is not guaranteed for the Nims community. Not to mention resources for experiments became even scarcer.
High school student Kenneth Greene participates in a STEM Out program at Nims Middle with seventh-grader Jason Henderson in February 2020. Maria Hiers/Special To The Democrat
To help with distance learning, the Leon County School district spent $10.5 million on 32,000 Chromebook to distribute to all students in the district. But this was not enough to save STEM OUT.
“One of the first days (before COVID), we did a preliminary sort of trial test, where we introduce ourselves in front of the students and we were looking for a beaker to do a simple experiment, there were a lot of problems because we had to almost go through the entire school to find a beaker,” Max said, recalling the challenges prior to the pandemic.
Zoom meetings proved to be impossible for many of the students because they lacked the resources needed to conduct certain experiments from home. In that situation, the founders of the program had no choice but to put meetings to an indefinite pause.
Looking for new leaders
Now, with the founders graduated and going to college and the effects of the pandemic still unknown, the program will need others to step in if it is to survive.
But Greene and Ngnepieba said they have no intention of giving up on the program. Now, in college, they are looking for high schoolers who can take charge of the program.
“Me and Max aren’t the program, we just started it, but we want the program to have its impact,” Greene said in a recent interview.
Both said they are not yet sure who will take on STEM OUT, but are hoping to train new high school students to take the lead who share their same view.
The future program could foster a mentorship program between high school students and others at Nims.
“We are trying to have other future leaders that represent the values that we are trying to keep with the program,” Ngnepieba said.
Ngnepieba said he and Greene hope a future STEM OUT could encourage students to come forward on other subjects they may be struggling with in school.
Aurelie Jean-Baptiste participates in the Florida Student News Watch. This story was edited by CD Davidson-Hiers. Email Student.Bylines@gmail.com.