It’s difficult to imagine what our world would be like without those folks employed in the STEM fields. Discoveries and inventions ranging from penicillin to the Internet have permanently changed our world for the better and have provided countless more jobs in more fields than even just STEM. But while these sorts of inventions have had an enormous impact on our society, there are plenty of advancements yet to be made that will be awaiting the younger generations. With the United States continuing to lag behind in STEM education, it’s more important than ever that parents take the initiative and introduce the STEM fields to their children at an early age so that they can be the ones making similar advancements in the future.
The State of STEM
While the United States has historically contributed a great deal to STEM field advancements, we are now at a point where we’re beginning to lose ground. In fact, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — an assessment done every three years to measure the science, reading ability, and math skills of 15-year-old students around the world — found that students in the U.S. ranked 24th out of 71 countries in science and just 38th in math. Likewise, among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (PISA’s sponsor), the United States ranked 19th in science and 30th in math, right at the bottom of the barrel. Similarly, according to a 2015 study conducted by the National Math and Science Initiative, only 15 percent of high school seniors perform either at or above proficiency in science subjects.
This has had an effect on the way that both Americans and scientists view the STEM output of the country as well. A 2015 study done by the Pew Research Center found that only 29 percent of Americans rated their country’s STEM education as either above average or the best in the world. Scientists were a bit harsher yet, with only 16 percent providing that same answer. Meanwhile, 46 percent of scientists rated STEM education in the U.S. as being below average.
STEM for Kids Should Start Early
The most important time in child development is from birth to age 5. This is when the drive to learn through exploration is the strongest in children and when it needs to be fostered the most. In fact, according to professor Jennifer Buchter, “During the earliest years, infants and toddlers develop 700 neural connections every second. These biologically driven neurological processes and natural curiosity of how the world works make early childhood an optimal time to introduce children to scientific inquiry.”
Given that, the best thing that you can do for your children if you want to educate them on STEM is to start them young. But what about if you’re not what you’d call a “science person” or a “tech person”? Don’t worry, you’re not alone and you’re definitely not out of options! Parents who feel they aren’t particularly gifted in STEM fields have a tendency to say things like “I’m not a STEM person” as a reason why they can’t teach their children about STEM. In fact, this is true of almost one-third of parents. The reality, however, is that you don’t have to be able to teach your kids coding languages in order to support your child’s learning. By simply asking questions and encouraging your child’s own natural sense of curiosity, you’re doing more than enough to turn your child into a little scientist.
STEM activities can start in infancy. When you’re at home, try letting your baby explore things like dish towels while telling them that dish towels are soft and that they’re rectangles. When they’re toddlers, you can move onto exercises such as encouraging them to count the number of cars they see in the parking lot. By the time they get to preschool, they’ll start asking a lot more “why” questions. If you don’t have the answers to these questions right away then try to spin it into a learning activity for the both of you by asking your child how you can both figure out the answer together.
And while those “why” questions are important for your children to be asking — it shows that they’re taking an active role in wanting to learn about the world around them — they’re the same types of questions that the Boston Children’s Museum recommends that you, as a parent, avoid asking them. Their STEM Sprouts Teaching Guide suggests that parents and teachers stop asking “why” questions and instead start asking “what” questions. So instead of asking your children questions like “why are those ants moving in a single-file line?”, you should instead ask them “what are those ants doing?”. This is because “what” questions encourage children to observe the situation you’ve asked them about and to come up with an answer on their own whereas “why” questions have answers that children may not know, which can discourage them from wanting to learn at all.
So What Are Some Great STEM Toys?
- Fisher Price Code-a-Pillar (ages: 36 months – 6 years)
- Magna-Tiles (ages: 3+)
- The Magic School Bus Chemistry Lab (ages: 5 – 12)
- Botley the Coding Robot (ages: 5+)
- My First Mind Blowing Science Kit (ages: 6 – 8)
- Magic Science for Wizards Only (ages: 6+)
- LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox (ages: 7 – 12)
- Crayola Color Chemistry Lab (ages: 7+)
- Minecraft (7+)
- Bloxels Build Your Own Video Game (ages: 8 -12)
Alejandra Roca, Author