Some Serious Matching Funds to Get Kids’ Hands Dirty with STEM Projects

There's been a lot of hand wringing in recent years about the lack of young Americans who are prepared for STEM jobs in an era when scientific and technological innovation are becoming ever more crucial economic drivers. Funders are working to address this issue, including looking to the underlying challenge of just how, exactly, to get kids interested in science and math—so interested that they'll stick with the hard work of excelling in these areas. 

Well, here's one insight to guide STEM philanthropy: Start earlier and make it fun.

Research has suggested that most people who pursue degrees in science and math were first interested in such subjects before they even started high school. Turns out your level of interest in STEM by eighth grade is a better predictor of whether you'll get a STEM degree than your test scores. Out-of-school activities, or informal education, have also shown potential to engage kids in science early on. 

In other words, to create science and math majors, we have to get to them young and expose them to STEM in ways that will interest them—not just make sure they’re hitting the books. 

This is a strategy that’s been embraced by a number of education funders, and the latest such program is leveraging the popular crowdfunding site DonorsChoose to direct a half-million dollars in matching grants. The program, backed by the Simons and Overdeck foundations, is called Science Everywhere, and sends foundation dollars toward creative projects that encourage students to explore math and science outside the classroom. The projects can happen at home, in an after-school program, or anywhere outside of a classroom. 

In addition to the foundations' matching donations to the projects, a panel of judges will award five teachers with the best ideas a $5,000 prize each. Only a handful of projects are funded so far, but they include sending seventh graders on a guided canoeing trip, and a buying a 3-D printer for a before-school STEM club. 

It’s an interesting twist, because DonorsChoose is typically a platform that funds classroom projects, curriculum development or additional supplies and technology. Teachers post projects on the platform a la Kickstarter, and small donors pitch in to cover costs. In this case, however, while teachers are still the masterminds, kids will be sent off to have fun with the projects after the bell rings. So it combines the wisdom of teachers, the impact of non-classroom activities, and funding from both the public and foundations. 

As far as who those foundations are, we’re all quite familiar with Simons by now. Among the most interesting and influential funders of basic science research, James and Marilyn Simons also have a major commitment to STEM education.

We’ve written less about the philanthropy of John and Laura Overdeck, but they’re also a couple of math and sciences whizzes turned hedge fund managers. The couple's foundation launched in 2012 with a primary interest in education. Simons and Overdeck are also backers of New York’s Museum of Mathematics. Come to think of it, both foundations and the donors behind them have a lot in common.

There’s one other cool element to Science Everywhere, which is that funded participants will become part of research conducted by University of Virginia Professor Robert Tai. Tai is a highly regarded education researcher whose past studies have explored how early STEM exposure and after-school activities are drivers of getting kids interested in STEM. That means not only will this go toward students in the short-term, it might also influence the next generation of STEM programs.