By Bill Sigmund

and Frederic Bertley

This summer, Pokémon Go wasn't the only thing engaging the minds and imaginations of youngsters across the Philadelphia region. Anyone within earshot of a local library would have encountered the joyful sounds of children having a raucous good time, all the while building essential educational skills.

So what were they up to?

For the 30th year, area students in grades two through six were participating in GSK Science in the Summer, a free education program that reaches more than 5,000 kids in our region. On a recent Saturday, 1,500 students, parents, and volunteers celebrated the completion of the summer program with a full day of exploration of hands-on science at the Franklin Institute.

We all know that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning is essential to the long-term economic vitality of our communities and our country, especially in cities like Philadelphia that rely so heavily on jobs in education and medicine. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the U.S. economy will have added 9 million STEM jobs between 2012 and 2022, many in health care.

Yet according to the National Center of Education Statistics, just 32 percent of eighth-grade students scored at or above proficient in science in 2011. Additionally, there is a five-point gap between boys' and girls' average scores and more than 25 points between the average scores of white students and black and Latino students.

With these concerning numbers, we all need to be asking: How do we ensure that all of our children are prepared to take on these critical STEM jobs?

In 1986, Virginia Cunningham, a Philadelphia-area based GSK scientist, thought she knew the answer: Bring fun and free science education directly to children in their communities during summer break.

Cunningham's vision, with a special focus on engaging minority children and girls in experiment-based exploration, became GSK Science in the Summer.

In 2012, GSK formed a partnership with the Franklin Institute, a national leader in STEM education and a natural fit to facilitate and lead the program throughout the region. This year, the program has grown to be offered at more than 120 Philadelphia-area libraries.

Science in the Summer students learn how to use a microscope, build a pulley, extract DNA from a strawberry, determine the pH of solutions, and construct a circuit through inquiry-driven, hands-on activities. They are encouraged to explore freely, ask questions, and make mistakes, all part of the scientific process that leads to discovery and innovation. The students don't take tests - instead they take steps toward understanding basic scientific concepts encountered at various levels in their schooling.

The success of this Philadelphia-born program led GSK to expand it to 20 cities across the country. This summer, the program reached homeless children in Louisiana and Native American students on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Since its launch, more than 150,000 children have participated.

Our results prove that expanding this kind of learning outside of the classroom works, and our surveys have shown that participants leave the program even more interested and engaged in science than when they started. In fact, alumni include scientists, engineers, and teachers working across the Philadelphia region, and former participants who are now parents have come back to enroll their own children - proof positive of the success of the program.

Programs like GSK Science in the Summer capitalize on what students learn in the classroom - introducing and reinforcing STEM concepts and skills in an environment that is fun, engaging, and right in their own neighborhoods.

High-quality STEM programs help our youngest children start on education pathways that lead to careers as health-care providers, researchers, engineers, and technological innovators. In a world where technical proficiency is becoming more important each day, and in a city and region with such a rich scientific heritage and so many related opportunities, we need to inspire children with a passion for scientific learning and equip them with the skills that will be critical for their success and the overall strength of our country.

Bill Sigmund, M.D., is the senior vice president for U.S. medical affairs at GSK.

Frederic Bertley is the senior vice president of science and education at the Franklin Institute.