Afterschool in Indiana: How Michigan City is using STEM to train the next generation workforce

A group of teenagers stand outdoors watching a girl launch a rocket that she built.
Herb Higgin, coordinator of the Safe Harbor afterschool program in Michigan City, Indiana, makes science a fun learning activity. Photo: Rick Smith

When Herb Higgin, coordinator of the Safe Harbor afterschool program in Michigan City, Indiana, asked Al Walus to mentor a newly organized high school robotics team, Walus not only signed on as a volunteer, but eventually recruited 16 engineers from other area companies.

Walus is a longtime member of Michigan City’s Economic Development Corporation and on the staff of Christopher Burke Engineering. He was concerned with preparing the area’s next-generation workforce — one capable of filling the increasingly high-tech, high-skill demands of local industry and businesses.

“Afterschool was our foot in the door,” he said. “It was an opportunity to pique kids’ interest in science, technology and engineering.”

Increasingly, Walus is convinced that afterschool is a space where curriculum innovation can take place — innovations that eventually could impact the regular school day.

Safe Harbor afterschool
Indiana's Safe Harbor afterschool and summer programs keep kids engaged in afterschool and out-of-school learning. Photo: Rick Smith

“Our local branch of Purdue University had expanded their engineering program — that’s what ultimately sold me on the value of Safe Harbor,” he said. “If our kids are going to take advantage of that opportunity, we have to start engaging them with the sciences before high school. That’s just too late.”

Safe Harbor’s emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) parallels changes at the district level, where Superintendent Barbara Eason-Watkins has instituted adjustments to curricula at the middle-school level, created two elementary magnet schools — one of which focuses on STEM education — and implemented a comprehensive instructional technology plan recognized nationally for its innovative classroom methodology.

“The schools are integral to the long-term success of our community,” she said. “What parents, local businesses and faculty want is more rigorous programming for our kids — programming that is relevant to 21st century skills. As superintendent, my job is to identify — and push — the key levers that will help the district create the best possible conditions for academic success.”

Those levers include afterschool programming, according to Jan Radford, the district’s director of curriculum development. Like Eason-Watkins, Radford views afterschool as a “curricular extension” of the academic day — a safe space where students can take risks, ask questions, try new things and apply what they’ve learned.

“If you give them the space and the time to engage with others in different situations, kids will become more adept,” said Higgin of the value of a challenging afterschool experience. “Kids become more comfortable making mistakes. They come to understand that mistakes help you learn.”

Nowhere has that played out more convincingly than with Safe Harbor’s robotics team.

Organized in 2012, Safe Harbor’s robotics team ended up taking the Midwest Regional Rookie All-Star award in their first year of competition. While Higgins is proud of that honor, he’s even more proud that six of eight members of the team’s first graduating class have been accepted into college and a seventh will be joining the United States Navy.

These accomplishments not only have validated the time and effort spent establishing and nurturing the robotics team, but also have inspired increasing numbers of younger kids to take an interest in robotics, rocketry and the life sciences, he said. Originally comprised of four students, the team has expanded to include 24 students over the past three years.

“There are partnerships — big and small — in place,” says Higgins. “Lots of people are engaged with our kids. Michigan City has really embraced afterschool.”