By PATRICK MCNAMARA
Everyone says that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is SO important – kids will have many more job opportunities if they follow a STEM career path. But people who develop an interest in STEM need to be exposed to STEM in order to develop that interest. Kids who’ve had some exposure to STEM are much more open to considering science and technology when they choose their classes in middle and high school. But how can we expose our kids to STEM?
First step – don’t call it STEM – it makes it sound like an assignment. Help kids see that science, technology, engineering and math are everywhere, and that they interact with it daily without making it sound like school or a life decision.
We all use math and science all the time. When you cook with your child (and you should cook with your child), incorporate math by letting him or her measure the ingredients and figure out how much to put in when you double the recipe. Fractions make more sense for many students when they can physically see how two ¼ cups of flour is the same as one ½ cup of flour.
Problem solving is an everyday experience. A key component to STEM education is understanding how to solve a problem. Use everyday opportunities to challenge your kids to think through a problem. Challenge your kids to come up with a resolution to the problem. If it gets too frustrating, support them by helping them break it down into smaller steps. Learning how to break problems down to manageable pieces is applicable in every subject, and yet many students don’t grasp that breaking a problem down is the first step to solving it.
Encourage experimenting. Give your child permission to take things apart – an old computer in pieces can really open up an interest in how things work. A quick Google search can help them understand how to put it back together. But circle back and get them to explain what they discovered. Great toys like LEGO and K’NEX lead kids to build amazing structures and objects. When your child builds that amazing roller coaster, ask him or her to explain how the pieces work. Have your child show you what he or she did.
Go outside. STEM isn’t just screens and machines, math problems and code. Engage your kids with STEM while you’re outside. Ask them – before they ask you – why is the sky blue? Have them look at the structure of plants and leaves. Talk about the weather. How does it feel before the rain? Why is it usually darker when it rains? Work together to plan and build a garden. Discuss what they want to plant and why. And together, watch the plants grow – make a point of observing everything regularly and ask your kids to predict how big the plant will be next week, or when the flowers will bloom or when the tomatoes will ripen. If you’re really looking to increase learning opportunities, chart it out!
Engaging with your kids and getting them to notice the world around them – how things were built, how they work and why they work, and even encouraging them to think about how to change it or make it better, is what STEM is all about! Simply pointing out some of those things we all take for granted can spark that awareness and promote a STEM interest in our children.
Patrick McNamara is the Executive Director of Sylvan Learning of Albany and Clifton Park, which provides tutoring services and academic coaching (www.SylvanLearning.com).