Hopefully your kids are getting a great education in science, technology, engineering and maths at school, but chances are those classes aren't enough to instil a lifelong interest in these fields for most kids. As parents, however, there are a lot of easy ways we foster a greater love of learning and exploration in STEM subjects in our children. Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
STEM Doesn't Have to Be a Love It or Leave It Subject
I recently asked a group of Girl Scouts what they thought about STEM subjects: Did they enjoy them? Did they think they are good at them? I heard a resounding "no" from the majority in the room. And yet when we did some activities (a real-life Move the Turtle game to mimic programming, for example), each one of them was involved and, yes, interested. They enjoyed the activities when they weren't presented as "learning about technology" or having to learn science facts because there's a test on Friday.
My daughter, despite her excellent maths scores and report cards, says she's not good at maths. She's less interested in robots than in unicorns (which is OK. She's nine and unicorns are magic). There's something about these subjects that make kids think they either love them or hate them absolutely — or that they're great at them or terrible at them — there's no middle ground. But it doesn't have to be this way and, when presented a different way, kids might actually find that they do like these subjects.
It's important not just because STEM fields offer awesome job opportunities and our future depends on these kids. STEM is about a spirit of experimenting and evaluating information objectively, of understanding our world a little bit more. These are valuable skills and also mindsets to acquire, wherever the kids go next in life.
Beyond helping with their homework, we can immerse them in STEM every day — without forcing it on them — and make it actually kind of cool. Unfortunately, we can't rely on schools alone to get them proficient in maths, science and the other STEM subjects. (This is not to criticise our maths and science teachers, who are critical to kids' learning in these subjects. Kids will benefit, though, from more hands-on, self-directed activities outside of the classroom so the subjects become recreational rather than a chore.)
So here are three things we can do.
Make STEM Normal and Applicable to Everyday Life
Kids who don't like maths or science have come to think of them as bad words, much like the word "taxes" leaves a bad taste in many adults' mouths. They don't realise that outside of the classroom, these subjects live in every aspect of our lives. We can point that out in everyday activities, such as:
Cooking: Food science is the best science — experiments you can eat! Kids can learn chemistry, practice their maths skills, and learn plant anatomy and other science lessons all from the comfort of your kitchen. Mental Floss has a roundup of 10 edible science experiments, this Kitchen Science lab book looks fun, and I'm going to do this Candy Chemistry kit with my daughter soon. But even normal daily things like explaining what happens when water boils, why toast burns, or why you should melt butter if you want the cookies to be chewy are ways to sneak in maths and science without being pedantic.
Music lessons or reading poetry: Poetry is rhythmic and really just music in text form, and music is tightly connected to maths. You might point out this fact to your kids or just let them practice and read while learn maths unknowingly.
Shopping and banking: Any time you're dealing with money is a good time to reinforce principles like the incredible effect of interest, how to make quick calculations and estimates in your head, or how to make comparisons (fractions and unit prices). Most of the maths operations we do with our kids when dealing with money are simple, yet important ones. Teach your kid about money by acting like a bank.
Any of their current interests or activities: Just about any interest could be an opportunity to learn more about STEM. Google's Made with Code, for example, has a project where your budding fashion designer can design a dress with LED lights. If your kids like cars, that's an awesome vehicle (sorry for the pun) to demonstrate physics (Real World Physics Problems has a few resources along this line). If your kid plays or watches sports, lots of maths and physics can come into play as well.
Make It Interesting and Hands-On
Besides sneaking it into your daily life, the most important thing is to encourage kids to have fun while learning STEM skills. For some kids that might mean learning the science of slime, for others it might be inventing their own video game. Whatever you do, don't make it a lesson. Instead, focus on the experience. A few suggestions:
- Take trips to a museum or zoo. It doesn't have to be a science museum in particular. Children's museums tend to have STEM exhibits and even history and art museums offer opportunities to learn about the history of technology, how things were made, and so on.
- Play STEM toys and games with your kids. We're overloaded with Minecraft, and LEGO blocks are making us bankrupt, but perhaps you've got a budding engineer or coder on your hands if your kid likes these and similar "toys". LEGO has its own robotics and coding kits, including a new WeDo 2.0 line for primary school kids. Amazon has a whole section for STEM toys you can look up, and we have access to plenty of apps to teach your kids to code. You and your kids also might get hooked on old-fashioned fun science experiments like making lava lamps or seeing what happens when you combine baking soda and vinegar. Check out several STEM subscription boxes that deliver projects to your door each month (though not all ship to Australia).
- Watch science and technology shows with your kid. Bill Nye, the Science Guy (which is on Netflix) and Mythbusters come to mind. Common Sense Media has a list of science shows for kids of all ages as well.
- Let your kid be your IT or DIY assistant. I became the IT person in my family because I was the only one to read the manual. Get your kid to read the manual and walk you through setting up the next new tech thing in your household or have him or her troubleshoot with you a computer problem. Same goes with projects around the house that can hone your kid's problem-solving skills.
My kid's teacher varies the kinds of activities the children do on a subject for each lesson, which I think helps immensely. So, for example, there might be a "match the animal to the environment" card game for one part of it and a "draw foods this animal might eat" for another part. You're not dealing with 20+ kids in a classroom (hopefully), just yours, so you can cater the activities to your kids' interests, whether that's drawing, reading, music, physical games, or anything else.
Honestly, the best thing you could probably do is be interested and enthusiastic yourself. Just spending time with you exploring these things together is the best encouragement you could give.
De-emphasise Grades and Praise the Process
STEM fields are tough. They're more rigorously graded than other subjects, and with test results such a huge focus in education today, students likely aren't getting enough of the inspiring hands-on learning that leads to lasting interest. Instead, kids develop "maths anxiety" and quit science because they don't think they're smart.
As with getting more girls into tech, one of the keys is to encourage kids to think it's worth giving it a good enough try before it becomes hard — and to push through even if it's challenging. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck's research found that parents and teachers might be praising in a way that backfires:
They often praise the ability, the talent, or the intelligence too much. The opposite of this is the good process praise. This is praise for the process the child engages in — their hard work, trying many strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their use of errors to learn, their improvement.
We conducted a study where we recorded videotapes of mothers interacting with babies when they were one, two, and three years old. The more the mothers gave process praise, the more their kids had a growth mindset and a desire for challenge five years later. And now we're finding how much better those kids are achieving even two years after that.
It doesn't have to be outright praise. It can be as simple as doing a STEM-based activity with your child and saying, "hey, how did you do that?" and being interested in the process.
That said, the goal isn't to force these subjects on our kids but to foster a love of them (in addition to fostering their other interests and passions) so know when to back off too. Forcing a kid to do maths puzzles before he can play Temple Run is kind of like forcing him to eat all his spinach or no dessert. Spinach becomes a villain.
So incorporate more STEM lessons into your family's everyday life but focus on your kids' engagement. When the fun they're having with a science project or maths problem is greater than the fear they have of failing, I think we've done our jobs.