It’s easy to get your kids engaged with STEM – they won’t even know they are doing it, writes Dr Naomi Lavelle
Now the kids are nearly back to school, parents are thinking again about the academic world. It’s easy to engage your kids with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). In fact, it’s so much fun they won’t even realise they are learning.
We are all born natural scientists; anyone who has ever spent an hour or two with a child will realise that they have questioning minds, always wondering how, why and what if. These questions can be never-ending and sometimes a little exhausting but they are a great way to encourage and maintain that curiosity.
Of course you don’t always have to answer each of your child’s questions; sometimes you can encourage them even more by helping them work out the answer for themselves. So next time you get bombarded with all those questions try answering them with a question of your own. This will keep your child interested and learning and it is great for encouraging lateral thinking.
You can also help your child find the answers for themselves, showing them where to look or providing them with the right books or resources.
They are much more likely to retain the information and explore the subject a little more if they discover the answers themselves.
If children are not old enough to find the information on their own it is always worth getting other people involved, especially older siblings. There is nothing like having to explain something to make you explore your own knowledge on a subject.
It is also perfectly OK to show your children that you don’t have all the answers all the time. This is a great way to explain that scientists are still exploring all aspects of life around us and there are so many questions still unanswered and ideas yet to be discovered. You can always suggest that this is something your child might like to do when they grow up and maybe they will be the one to discover the answer to the questions that are still baffling the brightest brains.
In today’s world time can be a rare commodity; when possible it is great to set aside specific times for science and learning with your family but you can also use times when you are all together naturally, like meal times or travelling together in the car. You can use that travel time to ask science questions on things they may see out the window as you drive.
If driving and talking are too distracting you and your children can listen to science podcasts created for younger audiences, there are lots to choose from.
There are so many opportunities to explore various aspect of science while performing everyday tasks with your children.
Investigate the science of bubbles while you get them to help you with the washing up or how about getting them to consider how clothes dry on a sunny day as they help you put the washing on the line?
We have all heard that there is a significant gender imbalance in STEM; if we look at third level education there are many subjects that emphasise this to dramatic effect. Dr. Maria McNamara is a palaeobiologist and senior lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork (UCC). Her school noticed that only 22 per cent of their undergraduate geology students were female, an issue they have addressed in many positive ways and in so doing, they have been awarded the Athena Swan award.
Dr. McNamara has observed that her female undergraduate students are less likely to speak out and answer questions in class, when compared to their male counterparts. She points out that in order to address the issue completely we must change our attitude towards girls and STEM from a very young age.
Girls need to have access to more STEM subjects in secondary school, with a detailed understanding of what each subject actually entails.
Maria makes the point that this alone is not enough; both boys and girls need to get equal exposure to science subjects in primary school, quoting studies that report that children are much more likely to have a positive attitude towards science if they experience it before the age of 11 and, more significantly, in the first couple of years of primary school there is a major shift in how a child perceives their own intelligence. We can take steps to address this gender imbalance ourselves; this is not simply a school issue.
It is important to choose our language carefully when discussing science. Maybe find ways to show how you yourself use science in your everyday life and how interesting it can be. Look for role models and opportunities; anything from discussing great female contributors to all areas of STEM to pointing out how science helps Granny grow all the plants she loves within her garden.
There are lots of great places to visit before the return to school, you could check out a local aquarium, visit a science museum, try a workshop or a science camp. If none of these options are practical or convenient you can always find resources on-line, there are many websites dedicated to STEM activities for children and you might even find a fun experiment you can try with your child using simple things you have around your home.
It is always a good idea to have simple STEM resources on hand in your house too. Books are a great source of scientific information for young minds and there are great science shows for children on TV and radio.
Why not bring science on your family adventures? You can set challenges when visiting the beach or walking in the woods, things like collecting different types of seaweed or leaves and then discussing what similarities and differences your child can spot. The outdoors are perfect for all kind of STEM learning and simply bringing reference books to allow your children identify hedgerow flowers they spot on a nature walk can build a curiosity that will stay with them for life.
It is important to remember than science is not all technical and serious, it is in everything we do and see. With a few simple steps we can turn our children’s natural curiosity into a gift they keep for life.
Dr. McNamara gives some excellent advice … “it can be things as basic as letting your kids get dirty, let them splash in puddles, drag sticks around, dig in the dirt, help with home baking. These are all early learning experiences and help our kids become engaged with the natural world – which is full of opportunities to learn about science”.