STEM – Science, technology, engineering and math. It can sound so serious, which is really a shame. STEM learning is fun!
This past week we went to the Children’s Museum in Pittsburg. It is a wonderful place. The kids love it and I feel inspired every time we are there. I happened to notice this Mr. Rogers quote on the wall:
“When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.”
― Fred Rogers
I thought, “That’s what science is all about. It’s about discovery. It’s about playing around and pushing the limits.”
Promoting STEM learning in the elementary years isn’t about lists of vocabulary terms. It’s about play and discovery. So today I provide a list of tips to promote STEM learning in your home:
1. Allow failure. Failure is part of the science experience. Sometimes things don’t work out and we have to figure out why. This is tough for parents. We see a mistake and we want to correct it before our kid fails, even if it’s a 2 year old building a tower or a 9 year old hooking up a circuit. It’s okay to ask the child, “What could you do differently?” and brainstorm after a failure. But try to let them choose the solution.
2. Play with Toys – Invest in toys that promote learning. Buy snap circuits, radiometers, hand boilers, and plasma balls. Bouncy balls, marble runs, and Newton’s cradles all teach principles that can be explained later with physics. Magnets are wonderful play objects. Marble runs and wooden train sets build a great foundation for understanding potential versus kinetic energy. Robots, like the NXT, are a great starting point for learning to program.
3. Watch TV. Not just any TV. There are great programs on PBS for kids – Cyberchase, Fetch, and Wild Kratts come to mind. Discovery channel and History channel both have some good shows. PBS NOVA has some great episodes. Modern Marvels is fantastic. If you don’t mind a little innuendo Myth Busters really reaches kids, although you might find yourself explaining to relatives how your 7 year old knows the exact temperature that causes rapid frost formation on the outside of a beer bottle.
4. Nature Walks / Observation – Whether it’s birds at the backyard feeder or a trip to the beach, nature provides a rich learning experience. Many an inventor has found his/her inspiration in nature. I also feel it is absolutely critical to teach our future scientists and engineers to be nature lovers. Nature teaches keen observation skills. We frequently have to listen for what we hope to see.
5. Play games – Play games like Blockus, Battleship, Mastermind, Checkers, and Chess to name a few. These games promote critical thinking skills, but mostly they’re fun.
6. Visit zoos, science centers, museums, and botanical gardens. Most of these places do a great job rotating exhibits, so there is always something new to learn. It’s one thing to read about space exploration, but actually seeing the size of the capsule the early astronauts used is mind boggling. Taking the elevator from the feet of a apatosaurus up to its head really brings home the scale of these dinosaurs. Even mom can learn something new when she gets to pet a penguin.
7. Do science experiments / activities. It’s okay to do science activities multiple times if you find them fun. We keep the plaster volcano in the basement and sometimes we break it out to play with it. It’s more an activity than an experiment, because we know what will happen. We also do all sorts of egg experiments the week before Easter, because it’s tradition. If you have trouble thinking of experiments buy a few experiment books or buy a science kit.
8. Cook – Bake cookies together, make soup, make apple pie. There is so much to learn in the kitchen – everything from good measuring technique to acid / base reactions. You can teach nutrition and talk about why you chose the ingredients you do. Baking bread introduces the importance of temperature on yeast growth and the properties of gluten. Kids are really proud of their accomplishments in the kitchen.
9. Read non-fiction books and magazines– I think too many of us have come to associate non-fiction reading with testing. Personally I became a non-fiction reader about 7 years ago when I discovered books like, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”, “For All the Tea in China” and “Freakonomics”. It can be so pleasurable to just learn a little more about the world or think of things from a new angle. I began to understand why my boys were selecting stacks of books about animals, inventions, weather and geology. They wanted to learn more about their world.
10. Share your discoveries – Kids are great at setting up their own experiments and testing hypotheses. They also tend to be keen observers when we give them time and don’t rush them. When they make a discovery celebrate it! My kids love sharing new observations like zombie caterpillars on Learning with Boys and through social media posts. When we found several off cycle cicadas in our yard, they were delighted to make a report to a website that tracks cicada emergence cycles across the country.
How do you keep the spark of discovery alive in your children or students?