There’s no debating the fact that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have received a lot of hype lately compared to other academic areas.
But despite the increased attention from the media and from politicians, for many students, these subjects are laden with difficulties.
Textbooks and lectures (and even most instructional videos) present formulas, advanced math, and scientific concepts in dry ways, and often don’t engage students who aren’t already interested in the material. They can also prove confusing. The kids who struggle with STEM subjects are often the same ones who don’t grasp the ways in which these lessons are important outside the classroom.
Some creative teachers, however, have been able to address these problems through group activities and live demonstrations that encourage students to observe, discover, and think about science in new and exciting ways. For children who don’t have access to opportunities like these, however, resources exist that can help them learn about STEM outside of conventional classrooms.
Here are some unique ways in which children and teenagers can learn about science that can make difficult concepts both exciting and understandable.
DIY and the Maker Movement
A few of the factors that have increased public awareness of science and moved it from conventional classroom experiments (such as working with fruit flies in a high school lab) to our homes and communities are the do-it-yourself (DIY) and maker movements. DIY has grown to include all STEM disciplines, and there are now many online resources available for budding Thomas Edisons or Grace Hoppers, such as DIY.org, which describes itself as “a safe online community for kids to discover new skills, meet friends who are geeks just like them, and be awesome.”
The maker movement encourages people of all ages to share their creations through media and community events, and sponsors events like Maker Faires around the United States and the world. It also boasts its own magazine, called Make:.
Private companies, such as littleBits, are creating sets of tools and electronic components that children can use in the classroom to grasp the concepts behind electronics and engage with technology in active and exploratory ways that texts and videos can’t provide.
College and University Programming
But electronics and toy companies are not the only driving force behind the incredible array of efforts that exist and those on the horizon. Colleges and universities are pioneering this move, too. Here are some of the many offerings from colleges in Massachusetts (where I live); your local universities or museums will probably offer similar programs.
To accommodate children’s school schedules, these activities and workshops usually occur on weekends, during after-school hours and school holidays, and over the summer. Some even feature programs for homeschoolers during normal school hours.
Splash and Spark
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosts a program called Splash, a two-day event held every November the weekend before Thanksgiving. This jam-packed learning festival allows high school students to “take classes, taught by MIT students, on anything and everything.” And they mean it.
Offerings have ballooned to over 400 mini-courses with subjects ranging from aircraft dynamics to music theory to neuropharmacology to origami. The fact that the classes are taught by people only a few years older than the high schoolers makes them feel comfortable experimenting and encourages messy, hands-on learning. Kids who attend Splash are welcome to cram as many classes into this two-day period as they can manage.
Splash has proven so popular that MIT created a similar program called Spark, which is targeted toward junior high students.
Tufts Engineering Workshops
Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach offers workshops for K–12 students. High schoolers were recently offered a class that allowed them to use computer-aided design (CAD) programs to design aircraft. Then, they had the opportunity to use some heavy-duty machinery — the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach’s laser cutter — to carve their designs out of a block of wood with incredible precision. The result was a wooden airplane that really works. One of the cool things about this program is its accessibility: students need not have had any previous experience building things, using CAD programs, or studying aircraft or aerodynamics. As the workshop’s website puts it, “We'll teach students everything they need to know.”
Don’t think that only colleges and universities provide such programs — if you look and think outside the box, you will find that other institutions have community outreach programs linked to STEM subjects.
There is a growing number of local organizations that offer science programs customized to their members’ interests or needs. Some require regular attendance and others are more informal. There are options for children and families whose schedules, learning styles, and interests diverge from conventional school classes.
The Massachusetts Audubon Society offers programs throughout the state. From bird identification walks to star-gazing parties, the array of outdoor activities and indoor classes will interest budding naturalists of all ages, even preschoolers.
Design and Engineering
The founders of danger!awesome hold all-ages workshops where they offer laser cutting, engraving, and 3-D printing services for your designs (for a fee). The company offers memberships, workshops, and training sessions that allow you to make use of expensive machines and be part of the creative or technical process.
Odds and Ends
Parts and Crafts is a member-supported family makerspace and community workshop that emphasizes “the creative application of technical skills.”
A unique feature is its Center for Semi-Conducted Learning, a “school alternative” program that provides classes, workshops, tutoring, and field trips from 9 to 3 each week. Though it welcomes all kids, it’s geared toward homeschool and unschooling families. Offerings run the gamut from the traditional and academic (algebra) to the esoteric and playful (espionage), and CSCL also allows kids to pursue their own interests in greater depth with one-on-one tutorials.
The Innovation Institute offers classes in all STEM areas for children and teenagers. It features an inquiry-based curriculum and hands-on learning in their science and engineering labs. Their programming covers the human microbiome, astrophysics, renewable energy technology, and neuroengineering. The company also offers younger kids the opportunity to learn about the basics of biology, design, and the human senses.
If your child thinks science is boring, she may just be missing out on the right kind of programming. Consider involving her in one of the many extracurricular opportunities that can complement and enhance her understanding and appreciation for STEM subjects.
Looking for other ways to cultivate your child’s critical thinking skills? Check out Thinking Outside-The-Box: Programs that Teach Kids Creative Problem-Solving Skills. Find out what opportunities are available in your school by asking a question on its Noodle profile.