Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning is a hot topic—and with good reason! In the past 10 years, growth in STEM-related jobs was three times greater than that of non-STEM jobs. Additionally, 80% of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. will depend upon the mastery of mathematics and scientific knowledge and skills. However, according to the Pew Research Center, U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags against that of their peers in many other countries. Clearly, there is a gap, and it’s becoming more evident that we need to bolster our students’ STEM skills to help them thrive in postsecondary education and the rapidly changing job market.
Of course, classroom instruction is important, but parents can make a big difference in helping children develop these critical skills at home too. Exposing children to STEM concepts from an early age builds familiarity and helps instill interest and confidence in gaining these skills. Here are five tips for parents to make STEM learning a focus at home:
1. Spend time on noncognitive skills
Teaching children noncognitive skills such as confidence, grit, and self-control can have a big impact in long-term academic achievement—especially when it comes to STEM fields that are all about problem solving, experimentation, and iteration. As children struggle with deciphering difficult math or science problems, they will also struggle with their own worries over the question of “Will I ever get better at this?” Helping your children learn to persevere in the face of difficulty is key to STEM success. Work on building a growth mindset by encouraging them to not give up or turn away from something that’s difficult and to face failures head on. In fact, encourage them to fail often—it’s often a great learning experience.
2. Encourage creating and making
Much of STEM learning is creative by nature, and associating STEM with creating and building can be a great way to spark your children’s interest. Combine STEM learning with project- based learning to encourage your children to solve real-life problems using applicable STEM skills. Point out problems you see around the home to which your children could help contribute a solution, involve them in your next home-improvement project, or encourage them to tackle an arts and crafts project in which they’ve expressed interest. Get their gears turning on an idea, and help your children become natural and creative problem solvers!
3. Practice, practice, practice!
Practice is key to building any skill set—and that certainly applies to STEM skills! Along with early, frequent exposure to STEM concepts, regular opportunities to practice the specific, related skills are critical to developing your children’s confidence in their own abilities. This practice can take multiple forms, and there are many tools—including apps, games, and old-fashioned workbooks—that parents can take advantage of to extend their children’s STEM learning at home. Online options can be great resources to provide students with engaging, personalized learning and practice.
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4. Build computational thinking skills
Computational thinking, defined In this New York Times article, is the term used to describe a whole set of valuable STEM-related skills: recognizing patterns and sequences, creating algorithms, devising tests for finding and fixing errors, reducing the general to the precise, and expanding the precise to the general. These skills (which are essential in the fast-growing field of computer programming) might sound complicated, but they can easily be developed through children’s ordinary play. Try taking familiar activities for children—like telling stories, doing dances, or making art—and breaking them down to a set of sequenced commands. Your children probably won’t even realize it, but they’re building the skills that are foundational to computer programming!
5. Expose students to real-life mentors and additional STEM opportunities
The gap in STEM knowledge is especially apparent for girls and minorities. So, it’s crucial for young students who fall into these groups to be given opportunities to meet mentors in STEM fields who look like them. Look into after-school or summer programs, interest groups, or formal mentorship programs in your community where students can more fully engage in STEM-related learning alongside peers and mentors to whom they can relate. Giving your children experiences like this can cultivate early interest and confidence, and help them envision themselves pursuing STEM fields in the future.
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