"The future of the economy is in STEM," says James Brown, the executive director of the STEM Education Coalition in Washington, D.C. In today's competitive global economy, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are becoming even more important skills for workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of STEM-related jobs will grow to over 9 million between 2012 and 2022. Yet students' interest in STEM is lagging. Only 16 percent of American high-school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career. And the United States is falling behind internationally, ranking 17th in science among industrialized nations and 25th in mathematics. So how can parents and educators motivate children to take interest and be proficient in STEM fields?
Rachel Robertson, vice president of education and development for the child care provider Bright Horizons Family Solutions, says, "Preschoolers spontaneously engage in STEM activities indoors and out on a regular basis." With guidance from adults, kids can practice STEM-related skills in their everyday environment and develop critical thinking skills.
Parents can work on these skills together with their children, Robertson says. Cooking is one great activity; kids can learn to read a recipe and measure ingredients. Water play is another idea that's fun and educational. Robertson suggests giving kids a basin of water to play outside, and then letting them experiment with different containers and tools, like empty dish soap bottles and plastic measuring cups, to fill and compare.
Other activities include building ramps to test how far and fast cars will go, and challenging kids to build towers of cups and record the tower height. See what activities might suit your child's particular interests, and go from there.
*Ask and Answer Questions
"Children are naturally inquisitive, often asking 'why?' or 'how?'" says Dr. Craig Bach, vice president of education at The Goddard School, a premier preschool for kids ages 6 weeks to 6 years old that focuses on learning through play. He encourages "following this thread of curiosity" to see what subjects interest your child. If your child has questions to which you do not know the answer, research more information together. Stirring up wonder will get their gears turning.
*Scavenge for Shapes
Alisa Affleck is a course mentor in teacher education at Western Governors University. She suggests getting kids to think about shapes, one idea being to go on a hunt through the grocery store to look for them. Start with rectangles, circles and squares, and then move on to three-dimensional solids like cones, cylinders, spheres, prisms and pyramids. Once your child collects the shapes, organize them and turn them into an art project.
*Keep It Simple
Don't overwhelm your child with exposure to STEM subjects. Yolanda Wilcox Gonzales is a technology integration specialist at Beaver Country Day School. This independent school in Boston was the first school in the country to integrate coding into its core curriculum. The implementation was meant to inspire enthusiasm for coding so it would eventually expand into other appropriate areas. But teachers in other disciplines began to express interest, too.
STEM starts with simple, logical concepts. She says to be smart about how and how often kids use technology. "Limit their screen time and push educational apps designed to familiarize kids with technology as they learn," says Wilcox Gonzales. "It helps them realize math is in every aspect of their life and encourages them to experience critical thinking and problem-solving."
*Cash and Coins
Teach kids about money and they'll learn practical math and the value of currency. Affleck says, "Give them opportunities to earn money, save for future wants and needs and spend within a budget." Parents could dump out loose change and let kids practice sorting and counting. Compared with traditional arithmetic, this type of applied real-world mathematics will engage them in a much more dynamic way.
Playtime is a great way to get kids into STEM. There are tons of educational toys on the market that promote creative and critical thinking, including building sets, brainteasers and art projects.
MindWare is a toy manufacturer that makes STEM Perplexors logic puzzles, which help sharpen kids' deductive reasoning and practical logic.
*Go on Field Trips
Take kids to visit different places where they can learn about STEM concepts. Zoos, aquariums, libraries, museums and public parks are great options. These family trips will be fun and educational.
Exposing children to all kinds of STEM-related activities and subjects at a young age can motivate them to pursue learning and higher education in these fields. Get in conversation with your children today.