Parents play a significant role in creating an environment that fosters STEM learning. However, it is incredibly difficult to create a fostering environment if you are not familiar with STEM or are uncomfortable with STEM subjects. The following Q&A is a primer on the most important aspects of STEM.
What is STEM and why the emphasis on girls?
The word STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
The word STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. While these are not new areas of study, the premise of STEM is that those four disciplines are integrated into a cohesive curriculum based on real world application. At its very core, STEM is about your child’s ability to make meaningful connections between school, community, and global issues.
Remember when you used to ask yourself in high school, “How much of this stuff am I really going to use in the real world?” When STEM is taught effectively, it eliminates the need for that internal debate. Learning should come alive, be interactive, relevant, meaningful, and ultimately lead to very productive and rewarding careers in engineering, physical and life sciences, technology, and beyond.
With STEM job opportunities 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.
Environmental factors, such as the level of exposure to STEM concepts, mentorship, and hands on project experiences are the most effective opportunities to make girls confident about STEM. These are thankfully areas where parents can contribute strongly.
STEM vs STEAM, what’s the difference?
In the past few years, there is a new school of thought that considers art to be a critical discipline 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 see the most innovative products in our world today, it is not difficult to recognize 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 brand’s identity.
Why does STEM learning matter at all?
STEM learning expands your child’s career options, whether she decides to pursue STEM fields or not. Consider these outcomes:
- Your smart girl will be less likely to move back home after college. 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 significant growth in STEM occupations equates 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 needed 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 the median annual wage among STEM professionals was $76,270, and for computer scientists was$102,190. 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 your smart girl if college is not the right fit for her; she won’t need to worry about earning lower wages if she does not have a four-year degree..
- Career opportunities outside the STEM fields: Almost 60 percent of workers with an undergraduate STEM degree are able to work in non-STEM jobs, because the core skills gained during study are transferable to other fields. This is particularly true in my case.
How early should I start introducing STEM?
STEM education should start as early as preschool; many age-appropriate resources exist that make this easy. However, despite the availability of great resources, the real challenge is sustaining 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, be consistent in exposing her to STEM disciplines and progressively building 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 informal experiences that are ideal for parent facilitation.
Furthermore, girls tend to have a natural interest in arts, writing, and communications. 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 the math and engineering involved in its creation are not always obvious. Pointing out those practical applications goes a long way in making her learning relevant and in sustaining her interest.
What does it mean for a school to be a STEM school?
STEM-focused schools are primarily geared toward students who 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 percent 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 includes several experiments that enable students to 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?
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 entertainment TV shows like SciGirls Seven for the younger ones and Mythbusters for the older ones
- Sign up for STEM project kits like Kiwi-Crate and Genius Box
- 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
What if I don’t have a STEM background?
Ultimately, the best approach for effectively fostering STEM learning at home is to be engaged and learn together. 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 how you can help reinforce it. As your smart girl gets older, you can help connect her to local mentors in her area of interest.
Don’t get intimidated by your lack of familiarity with STEM subjects; STEM learning lends itself to experimentation and discovery that doesn’t require you to be the expert. You will find yourself creating many memories with your daughter while you are both learning new skills – a winning proposition for both you and your smart girl!