Parents have a huge part to play in creating an environment that fosters STEM learning. However it is incredibly difficult to do so if you are not familiar with STEM or not comfortable with STEM subjects. The following Q&A is a primer on the most important things you need to know about STEM.
- What is STEM and why the emphasis on girls?
- STEM vs. STEAM, what is the difference?
- Why does STEM learning matter at all?
- How early should I start introducing STEM?
- What does it mean for a school to be a STEM school?
- What do I do if my child’s school doesn’t have a strong STEM program?
- What if I don’t have a STEM background?
1. What is STEM and why the emphasis on girls?
The word STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. At its very core, STEM is about your child’s ability to make meaningful connections between school, community and global issues. While these are not new areas of learning, the idea of STEM is that those four disciplines are integrated into a cohesive curriculum based on real world application.
Remember when you used to ask yourself in high school, how much of all this stuff am I really going to use in the real world? Well, when STEM is taught effectively, it eliminates the need for that internal debate. Learning should come alive, be interactive, relevant, and meaningful and ultimately lead to very productive and rewarding careers in Engineering, Physical and Life Sciences, Technology and beyond.
With STEM jobs growing at a faster pace than non-STEM jobs, stereotypes that math is boring or that engineering is a “boy” thing are hurting our smart girls. Contrary to the widely accepted social bias that boys are more naturally capable of succeeding in math and science, Research has shown that there is actually no difference in ability between both genders when it comes to math and science. However, girls are more prone to doubt their ability in STEM subjects while boys believe they can learn and improve.
The most effective opportunities to make girls confident about STEM revolve around environmental factors such as the level of exposure to STEM concepts, mentorship and hands on project experiences. These are thankfully areas where parents can contribute strongly.
2. STEM vs STEAM, what’s the difference?
In the past few years, there is a new school of thought that says that Art is a critical discipline that is missing from the STEM equation. Consequently, a shift has been proposed to advance from STEM to STEAM.
We particularly prefer this paradigm when it comes to teaching girls the principles of STEM. When you look around at the most innovative products in our world today, it is not hard to see design thinking at work. For example, Apple products all feature a sleek but functional design. While it took a lot of STEM brains to create the iPhone, it took equal amounts of artistic brains to design the beautiful package that has become part of the identity of the brand.
3. Why does STEM learning matter at all?
STEM learning opens up your child’s career options whether she decides to work in STEM or not. Consider these outcomes:
- Your smart girl will be less likely to move back home after college. Because for every job posting for a non-STEM bachelor’s degree holder, there are 2.5 entry-level job postings for a STEM degree holder. The US Department of Commerce projects that by 2018, STEM occupations would have grown by 17% since 2008 compared to 9.8% for non-STEM occupations. This significant growth in STEM occupations equate to more career prospects for your smart girl!
- The world is her oyster; she can live and work anywhere in the world. The shortage of candidates for the available STEM jobs is a global problem. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK will have to graduate 100,000 STEM majors every year until 2020 just to meet demand.
- More money in the pocket: A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that the median annual wage of all occupations in the U.S. was $34,570 per employee, while median annual wage was $76,270 among STEM professionals, and $102,190 for computer scientists. Also, many STEM jobs don’t require a college degree – Less than half of entry-level STEM jobs require a bachelor degree or higher. This takes the pressure off and allows your smart girl to opt out of college if it’s not right for her without worrying about low wages in the future.
- Career opportunities outside the STEM fields: Almost 60% of workers with an undergraduate STEM degree are able to work in a non-STEM jobs as the core skills gained during study is transferrable to other fields. This is particularly true in my case. Although I graduated with a computer science bachelor’s degree and started out in IT roles, I have since earned an MBA and transitioned into general business management. The analytical and problem solving skills I developed in my STEM major and early career has been indispensable to me.
4. How early should I start introducing STEM?
STEM education should start as early as preschool and there are many age appropriate resources that make it easy to do so. However, the real challenge is to sustain your smart girl’s interest over time. According to the US Department of Education, nearly 28 percent of high school freshmen declare an interest in a STEM-related field but 57 percent of these students will lose interest by the time they graduate from high school.
To keep your child engaged, you need to be consistent in exposing her to STEM disciplines and progressively build upon concepts learned year after year. In fact, a recent study that followed students who participated in STEM programs shows that informal STEM experiences have long-term impact. The participants who are now between ages 18 – 40 indicated that their most memorable influences were trips, experiences or internships followed by activities, experiments or specific classes. These are the kind of activities that are ideal for you as a parent to facilitate for your child.
Also, girls tend to have a natural interest in arts, writing, and communications so do your best to find creative ways to help your child connect her STEM learning to the arts. For example, it is easy to see art in a beautiful architectural structure but it is not always obvious that there is a lot of math and engineering involved in creating it. Pointing out those practical applications go a long way in making her learning relevant and sustaining her interest.
5. What does it mean for a school to be a STEM school?
STEM-focused schools are primarily geared towards students that have an interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. That means the courses, extracurricular activities and events, and school programs offered are all centered on STEM subjects. Some schools have 100% immersive programs while others feature a break out curriculum to support a subset of qualified students.
Here some guidelines for testing the quality of your child’s STEM program.
- Is the learning context motivating, engaging, and real-world?
- Are students able to integrate and apply meaningful and important mathematics and science content?
- Are the teaching methods student-centered and inquiry-based where learning include lots of experiments where students can explore and make discoveries of their own?
- Do students engage in solving engineering challenges using an engineering design process?
- Do students have the freedom to think critically, creatively, and innovatively? Do they have opportunities to fail and try again in a safe environment?
6. What do I do if my child’s school doesn’t have a strong STEM program?
There are plenty of ways you can help your child develop STEM skills outside of School. Here are just a few ideas:
- Supplement her math education with afterschool programs like Kumon, Sylvan or Stanford Gifted and Talented
- Buy toys that engage critical thinking and problem solving
- Draw her attention to STEM principles in your everyday environment such as math while measuring during cooking and baking or perspective and angles while discussing works of Art.
- Visit museums and science fairs
- Watch edutainment TV shows like SciGirls Seven for the younger ones and Mythbusters for the older ones.
- Spend quality time with your daughter working through experiments and projects that are easy to do at home like making soap or lip-gloss and discussing the chemistry involved.
7. What if I don’t have a STEM background?
Ultimately, The best approach for effectively fostering STEM learning at home is to learn together and to be engaged. If your child’s school has adopted STEM, talk to your child’s teachers and ask for more information about what they are learning and suggestions on how you can help reinforce it. As your smart girl gets older, you can help her find local mentors in her area of interest to connect her to.
Don’t get intimated by your lack of familiarity with STEM subjects; STEM learning lends itself to experimentation and discovery that don’t require you to be the expert. You will find yourself creating many memorable moments with you daughter while you are both learning new skills; a winning proposition for both you and your smart girl!