Today is National STEM Day, a nation-wide celebration of all things science, technology, engineering, and math. We’ve all heard that STEM subjects are more important than ever, with STEM careers on the rise and technology becoming part of more and more aspects of daily life. In fact, some studies show that 80% of jobs in the future will require STEM expertise. With all that talk about the importance of STEM, it’s natural for parents and teachers to try to encourage kids to get excited about STEM. The problem is, that’s easier said than done.
One third of fourth graders have already lost interest in math or science. Fast forward a few years to eighth grade and the same is true for half of the students. Girls and students of color are even less likely to embrace STEM subjects as boys. The statistics look grim—but there is hope! Many of these self-proclaimed STEM haters actually enjoy STEM activities in their daily lives! They just don’t know it yet. Here are five tips and tricks to inspire a lifelong passion for STEM in kids’ lives!
Kids may not realize it, but cooking is actually a chemistry lesson! Chemistry, after all, studies how substances interact together—combining or separating to form new compounds. That may sound fancy, but heating up a bunch of ingredients is a chemical reaction! Encourage kids to turn cooking into a science experiment. What happens if you add slightly more or less of an ingredient to a batch of chocolate chip cookies?
What happens if you use brown sugar instead of granulated sugar? What if you use melted butter? What if you use baking powder instead of baking soda? Compare your unique cookies to a ‘control’ batch. Give kids a little bit of free reign over the variables that they choose—unless it’s something genuinely dangerous, like adding pieces of broken glass to a cookie! Which one do they like best?
Talk about jobs that use STEM skills
If you ask a kid to name a job that involves science and math, they’ll probably think of a scientist in a white coat, pouring brightly colored beakers of mysterious liquid. But the truth is that many exciting jobs use science and math every day.
If you and your child are playing astronauts or watching a movie set in outer space, talk about how astronauts work hard at science and math to make sure they’re safe in outer space. Fancy words like ‘astronomy’ and ‘physics’ and ‘engineering’ may sound scary, but they’re not so intimidating if kids realize that people who walk on the moon were once kids studying fractions, just like them!
And then there are the less obvious jobs that use science and math—veterinarians need to know how animals’ bodies work to take care of them, athletes need to know the right angles to make good shots, video games are designed by talented coders, and even music and movies wouldn’t exist without some fancy engineering. Bring up how these skills help people do their jobs every day and soon, science and math won’t seem like something reserved for genius professors! Here are some in-depth examples of unexpected jobs that use STEM every day.
Go on a ‘field trip’
Think of the top three fun destinations for a family outing. Maybe a zoo or aquarium, a museum, or a theme park? These are all great places to sharpen STEM skills! Many museums now feature exciting hands-on displays that get kids immersed in science. They can crawl through a model heart at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, see the world from a bugs’ eye view in Chicago’s Field Museum, or experiment with flight at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC! It might be a family trip to a museum that awakens a lifelong passion for coral reef conservation or trains or medicine!
Zoos and farms are an amazing place to see science come alive. Many children have a passion for animals and can name fun facts about their favorites. Check the schedule of daily events when you walk through the gate. Zookeepers and veterinarians often give talks at popular zoo exhibits about topics like sea lion enrichment or feeding big cats. They’re usually very happy to answer questions from young kids about what it’s like to work with big animals—or even how they became zookeepers or vets in the first place!
You might not think that an amusement park is much of an opportunity for learning, but theme park rides are a terrific way to learn about physics! Many theme parks, like Kings Island, Busch Gardens, and Disney World, offer education days and camps that allow kids to learn about the science behind their rides. Even if you’re not attending a special program, here’s a great resource that uses bumper cars, drop towers, and roller coasters to learn about physics concepts!
A snail mail solution
Even though most of us use email more than snail mail, kids love getting their own mail. When they get mail with their names on it, it’s usually not bills or bank statements! Magazines with a STEM focus are a great way to introduce kids to a variety of fascinating subjects. With issues ranging from wildfires to horses to outer space to computer hackers to the bottom of the ocean, magazines delve into topics that kids love without feeling like school.
Cricket Media publishes three award-winning STEM publications for kids of all ages: CLICK Magazine, for ages 3-6; ASK Magazine for ages 6-9; and MUSE Magazine for ages 9-14. These titles present STEM topics in kid-friendly, humorous articles and stories, along with plenty of cartoons, cool photos, and interactive activities.
Find the answers together
If your kids are anything like ours, they are probably full of questions. “Why is the sky blue?” “What’s the biggest animal?” “Why do you have to wear a space suit in space?” It’s easy to give a simplified answer, or even say that you don’t know, but isn’t it cooler to help kids figure it out on their own?
Say “I don’t know! Let’s look it up together!” and open a kid-friendly search engine to type in the question. A simple search of “Why is the sky blue for kids” turns up tons of educational videos, detailed drawings, and even a few activities. Another approach that doesn’t involve screen time? Visit your local library and check out a kids’ book on the subject. Encouraging kids’ natural curiosity is the first step to STEM success. Once they realize that they can find their own answers, soon they will be teaching you about your their favorite subjects!
There’s just one thing that scientists have in common with kids: they are full of wonder about the world around them! Because of this, kids make excellent natural scientists. The trick is getting them to stay interested in STEM as they get older! What has worked for the kids in your life? Let us know!