How to Get Your Kids Excited About STEM
Here in the Bay Area, we don’t need to be told that science and technology skills lead to lucrative careers. The evidence is all around us, thanks to the continued growth of the tech and innovation industry (traffic and housing prices are growing too, but let’s save that for another story).
A degree in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) can be your child’s ticket to a future job. More importantly, encouraging your kid’s natural curiosity about how the world works can let you enjoy the magic of discovery together – whether you’re helping them learn to code or look for caterpillars in the backyard. Even if your children don’t grow up to be engineers, instilling in them the curiosity, logic and analytical thinking that are the backbone of STEM fields is a great gift for their future.
We spoke to local educators, professionals and one super science fair winner to get tips on how parents can get kids excited about these subjects. Here’s what they had to say:
Preschool and kindergarten: Find the STEM in coloring and Cheerios
Diane Resek is a professor emeritus of mathematics at San Francisco State University who spent more than 30 years working to improve math education, from pre-kindergarten to graduate school. She says one of the most important things a parent can do with their young children is help them understand the concept of numbers and counting in context.
“They have to realize that when they say the mysterious words 1-2-3-4-5, they’re not going to have the same amount when they stop.” Resek says. Parents should try to convey this concept at every opportunity, starting with counting the number of steps to their house or the number of Cheerios on the table.
Children who get to kindergarten without real-life counting experience “hear the concept ‘three’ and they have no idea what it is.” But she’s wary of flashcards or anything that makes teaching numbers too complicated. Her suggested strategy is to convey the idea of numbers and counting in context, instead of making it something abstract.
Jessica Thompson, a Grammy-nominated audio engineer in Berkeley, says she was never interested in science or technology as a child but was lured into a technical job later in life through her interest in making music. Now, she tries to use the same technique with her 4-year-old daughter Margot.
“She’s really into music and I’ll bring her into the studio and play for things for her, and let her observe all the different tools to kind of make the connection through the music to the technology,” Thompson says. Or when Margot’s coloring, she’ll ask her to think about what color she’ll get when she mixes two colors together, and why.
“Seek the science through the gateway drugs of coloring,” and music, is Thompson’s advice.
Visit talkingisteaching.org/resources for ideas on how to engage young children through talking, singing and reading.
Elementary School: Reinforce their passions
Dr. Jennifer R. Cohen and Eli Kennedy work at the Level Playing Field Institute (www.lpfi.org), a nonprofit that provides free educational programs and resources to support underrepresented minority students in the Bay Area and help them pursue STEM careers.
“When I was in elementary school (Lakeshore Elementary School in San Francisco), my mother would tell me all the time that I will make a great scientist,” Cohen says. “My mother was a stay-at-home mom at the time, and although we didn’t know any scientists, I believed her when she told me I could and would be a great scientist.”
Her mother encouraged her at an early age to volunteer with the Nature Trail at the San Francisco Zoo (www.sfzoo.org/explore/exhibits/naturetrail.htm), where Cohen learned about animals and preserving nature. By the time she got to high school, Cohen already knew she wanted to study science.
“I encourage other parents to notice what their children are excited about or good at and then reinforce,” Cohen says. “Encourage your children when they are demonstrating curiosity and creativity in problem solving.”
Kennedy is the parent of a 6-year-old daughter who “loves the Lawrence Hall of Science and doing experiments,” he says. He focuses more on activities and experiments than buying her gadgets or toys to encourage her interest.
“STEM-based toys are great, but not in isolation. Gadgets are just that, without practical context,” he says. It can be just as educational to simply talk with your kid about creative problem solving. “Connect the concept of going on a treasure hunt to discovery in STEM fields. Incorporate the scientific method into chores.”
He had one final tip for parents humble enough to accept it: “Encourage children to seek out experts to answer questions that go beyond their parent’s knowledge.”
Resources: Lawrence Hall of Science (www.lawrencehallofscience.org), The Exploratorium (www.exploratorium.edu) and The Tech Museum of Innovation (thetech.org) make great family outings. Cohen also suggests contacting local universities, such as UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco to ask for a tour of a lab of interest to your child. You can browse the “research” pages on university websites for ideas. Tumble (www.sciencepodcastforkids.com) is a science podcast for kids that answers a science question with every episode. It’s a great way to start talking about science with your kids and works well for car rides or bedtime stories.
Middle School: Don’t force
Mirjana Videnovic-Misic is a researcher at the Berkeley Wireless Research Center and mother to 12-year-old Stefan. The first time engineering sparked her interest was when she was about Stefan’s age and a family friend came over to fix their broken TV. “I was so interested they had to push me away,” she says. She went on to become a hardware engineer.
But it’s harder to inspire the same interest in everyday objects in her son. “Today’s kids have so many inputs,” and parents have to try extra hard to make STEM activities seem exciting, she says.
Videnovic-Misic says she made the mistake of foisting her own enthusiasm for engineering and problem-solving on Stefan. She bought toys because she, not Stefan, was interested in them or they weren’t age-appropriate. She worries she deterred him from the technological challenges she was trying to make enticing.
Now that he’s 12, “I feel like my window where I could influence him is already closing,” she says. The older he gets, the more “he will be more influenced by his peers.” Her advice for this age is to make sure to let your child’s interests guide their own learning and activities. Otherwise, as they get older they will identify STEM as something forced on them by their parents, rather than part of their own solidifying identity.
High School: Help them find their genius
Glenn Corey teaches product design, programming and physics at Novato High School, and formerly worked as a tech entrepreneur and in the advanced technology division at Apple. He has lots of ideas about how parents and teachers can help kids unlock their own STEM potential. “I believe there’s genius in every one of these kids,” he says—you just have to help them find it.
Corey applies the same principles to teaching as he did to parenting his two (now grown) daughters: listen carefully and pay attention. He says the most important thing a parent can do is listen to your teens and encourage them to pursue what they’re passionate about.
For example, he had a student who had recently been suspended from school, was failing his class,and was on the verge of being expelled. But Corey noticed this student brought a broken iPad into class, took it apart on his own and fixed it—not a simple task. So Corey gave him a piece of broken technical equipment for the classroom’s 3D printer and said “if you fix it, you get an A in my class.” The student read every manual, took the gear apart and eventually fixed it.
“He has a gift for understanding manuals and how they work,” Corey says. And now, he also has more confidence in his own abilities. “He walks into my class like he owns it.”
Corey’s advice to parents: Find the opportunities to enhance STEM understanding that arise out of the teen’s own interests. If you notice they enjoy logic problems like chess or some video games, see if they want to sign up for a coding class. At this age, the goal of the parent and child should be to help them discover what they’re really in love with, “what makes their heart sing,” he says.
Resources: Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org), Coursera (www.coursera.org) and other online learning resources can help high schoolers study for challenging classes or pursue extracurricular interests, like coding. There’s also a plethora of summer STEM programs for teens around the Bay Area. The Level Playing Field Institute (www.lpfi.org) has a free program for underrepresented minority teens, and UC Berkeley (summer.berkeley.edu/student-types/high-school-students), UC Santa Cruz (cosmos.ucsc.edu/index.html), and Stanford University (oso.stanford.edu/programs/audiences/5-high-school-students) offer several summer programs in different areas of STEM.
All ages: Stick to it
“Encourage kids to stick with problems and to feel success,” advises Resek. Tell them “See how if you work on it, you can make it happen!” She says that parents encourage that mindset in kids with respect to sports, but not always with math or other STEM fields. “They think to be good at math, you have to be born with a special kind of brain,” she says, but in reality most students who put some effort in can be successful.
Corey agrees. He says science education can too often focus on people like Einstein and Newton, giving kids the impression that you have to be exceptionally brilliant to be a successful scientist.
“What we don’t teach them is there’s a huge amount of room for scientists who are doing good work,” he says. “You don’t have to be a genius.”
Tagline Freelance writer Mallory Pickett is a Santa Cruz-native who has a masters degree in Chemistry from UC San Diego and a masters degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.
More Resources from Bay Area Parent
Looking to inspire your child’s interest in STEM subjects? At bayareaparent.com/STEAM, we have many articles to help, such as:
Local coding programs - www.bayareaparent.com/Article/Bay-Area-Coding-Programs-for-Kids.
Tips on raising an innovator -www.bayareaparent.com/Article/How-to-Raise-an-Innovator.
Technology programs just for girls - http://www.bayareaparent.com/Article/Tech-Just-for-Girls/
Our annual digital magazine is devoted entired to science, technology, engineering, art and math: bayareaparent.digitalparenthood.com/?issueID=6&pageID=1
Our Best of the Best magazine shares what other parents voted as the best in the Bay Area:
Best Technology Camps -www.bayareaparent.com/Article/Best-Technology-Camps-in-the-Bay-Area.
Best Math and Science Programs - www.bayareaparent.com/Article/Best-Math-Science-Programs-in-the-Bay-Area.