Partnerships are a key support for afterschool science

By Melissa Ballard - July 2014


Lundh, P., House, A., Means, B., & Harris, C. (2013). Learning from science: Case studies of science offerings in afterschool programs. Afterschool Matters, 13, 33–41.

Lundh and colleagues compare the science offerings of afterschool programs with the model of informal science education defined in the National Research Council’s (NRC) report on learning science in informal environments (NRC, 2009). Case studies explore how common site-based constraints and the support of external partners influence science program differences as seen through the lens of the NRC model. The researchers examined three common constraints:

The study explores how these constraints relate to one another and how they can be mitigated by partner support.

Research Design 

Nine geographically diverse afterschool program sites were selected for qualitative case studies from a group of 406 California afterschool sites in a larger study on partnership networks. Selected sites met minimum requirements: They had at least two supporting partners, offered science at least once per week, and reported program features that were associated with high-quality science.

Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with facilitators, site leaders, and representatives from support organizations. Researchers also observed science activities and filled out observation rubrics. A rich description was written for each site.

The science offerings of each site were analyzed against the NRC’s six strands of science learning in informal environments:

  1. Developing interest in science
  2. Understanding science knowledge
  3. Engaging in scientific reasoning
  4. Reflecting on science
  5. Engaging in scientific practices
  6. Identifying with the scientific enterprise

For each strand, sites were given scores of high, medium, or low based on whether the science activities aligned with that strand and whether the activities provided strong related learning opportunities.

Theoretical Basis 

The researchers selected afterschool sites that represented “critical cases,” where promising conditions for strong science offerings were present (Flyvbjerg, 2006). Theorizing that generalizations across cases could be made with this set of sites (Greene & David, 1984), they used a grounded theory approach (Glaser, 1992) to find explanatory patterns among the factors that contributed most to the strength of science offerings.


Programs were grouped by level of external partnership support. Those with little or no partner support implemented the NRC strands the least fully. The two sites categorized as having the highest level of partner support implemented the greatest number of strands and did so at the highest levels. None of the sites, with the exception of one with a high level of partner support, displayed alignment with strand 4, reflecting on science, or strand 6, identifying with the scientific enterprise. All sites that had at least some partner support scored high on the first strand, developing an interest in science.

All of the afterschool sites experienced significant capacity constraints in all three areas examined: time available for science, staff capacity, and instructional materials. External partner support played a significant role in sites’ ability to overcome constraints, especially staff capacity and instructional materials. The researchers observed that many programs did not regularly access high-quality instructional resources and had limited activity materials on hand (P. Lundh, personal communication, June 19, 2014).

Implications for Practice 

This study confirms common constraints afterschool programs face in offering science to their participants. It clearly identifies partnerships as a key support in addressing staff capacity and a lack of adequate instructional materials. Although the paper doesn’t evaluate the quality of the science offerings, the sites that had the most external support did exhibit the strands of science learning in the NRC model to a greater degree. It should be noted that the afterschool sites featured in this study did not explicitly develop program goals to align with the NRC strands. It would be valuable to better understand how explicit goal-setting and prior knowledge of the NRC strands would affect the strength of program implementation.

Regardless, the findings do highlight the importance of partnerships for afterschool and summer programs that offer science. Informal science educators at institutions such as science centers, museums, zoos, and aquariums should look to offer their resources to afterschool and summer programs to improve the strength and quality of out-of-school time science offerings. Future work on the nature of and best practices for such partnerships and on the types of supports provided would be highly beneficial to the field.

This paper is one of the first publications from the NSF-funded Afterschool Science Networks study at SRI International. See the project website for more information:.


Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry, 112(2), 219–245.

Glaser, B. (1992). Basics of grounded theory analysis. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.

Greene, D., & David, J. L. (1984). A research design for generalizing from multiple case studies. Evaluation and Program Planning, 7, 73–85.

National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.