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Not sure what STEM is and how you can help your kids with it? You’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know about STEM, why it’s important and how your kids can develop great STEM skills.
STEM is an intrinsic part of everyday life. Every time we beat an egg white, we’re scientists. Each time we pick up our phones, we use technology. We’re engineers just by hanging a picture on the wall, and we’re mathematicians simply by splitting the bill at a restaurant.
STEM is one of the 21st century’s biggest education buzzwords, and while you may already know that it’s an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, you may not know that it’s so much more than four school subjects. STEM is an intrinsic part of daily life and is an approach to learning that integrates and blends these disciplines.
More than anything, it’s a philosophy of education that teaches skills and subjects in a way that resembles real life. Critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, curiosity – these are the real fundamentals of STEM learning. And in our increasingly technologically driven, innovation-led world, it’s no wonder these dynamic ways of thinking are considered the superstar skillsets of the future.
Did you know that by the time they leave high school, half of today’s school students have dropped science and many have also quit maths? It’s a worrying statistic because, in many ways, STEM is a new literacy benchmark.
As technology continues to transform every aspect of our lives through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, today’s children will live and work in a world that is markedly different from that of their parents – and it will be one where skill and capability in STEM subjects are crucial.
Just consider the ways in which STEM has already revolutionised most industries. Banking has switched from tellers, cash, cheques and handwritten forms to apps, blockchain and digital signatures.
In hospitals, nurses view heart rates, blood oxygen and vital signs for the entire ward from one station, and can get instant blood-test results instead of waiting for a laboratory. The digital revolution has also transformed offices as cloud computing and mobile connectivity allow people to work from anywhere.
There’s no denying that STEM skills will be increasingly important in the jobs market. The fastest growing industries are STEM related and in the future, 75% of all new jobs will require STEM skills, while in the next 2-5 years, 90% of jobs will need digital skills.
Australia’s chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, says Australia needs to improve its record on STEM qualifications and STEM skills in the workplace are widely recognised as crucial to our long-term future. In a world where technology and AI are on the rise, creative problem-solvers with skills and talents in the STEM fields will be valuable employees.
The Australian curriculum has changed to engage more fully with our digitally focused world (particularly schemes like the National STEM School Education Strategy), but parents can also assist in the teaching and learning of STEM skills at home, even during early childhood.
That doesn’t necessarily mean science experiments in the bathtub or sending a homemade rocket into space – though those are great STEM activities too! It can be as easy as going on a nature walk and letting your little ones chat about what they see or exploring basic household items together.
You may know that some of the core components of STEM are coding and robotics. Coding in particular is seen as a new form of literacy; it’s considered to be a language that will be as important as English — but it doesn’t have to be overly advanced to begin with. Preschoolers can start early, with age-appropriate activities, like building dough bridges, to spark early engineering skills.
Even simple things like helping kids problem solve or question how a toaster or light bulb works can foster inquisitive minds. If possible – it’s hard! – resist the temptation to explain. Instead, encourage opportunities for observation and questioning.
Hot Tip: When your preschooler asks “why” constantly, it may feel frustrating, but that questioning is a great foundation for STEM learning.
Most children today are true digital natives who will muscle in on every bit of technology they see you using. But while smartphones and tablets are marvellous resources, mounting evidence suggests children will learn more effectively off screen than on.
It makes sense, then, to stock your rumpus room with fun STEM toys. Building blocks are one of the most basic and entertaining ways to introduce maths and engineering concepts and they will also keep kids engaged for hours at a time. Other great STEM activities are building a pillow fort or having a dominoes competition.
Hot Tip: Opt for hands-on STEM activities that you can do together; it’s also a fantastic opportunity for family bonding.
As they move through school, students can sometimes be put off STEM by thinking it’s too complex and hard. But maybe that’s because we often take the four STEM subjects too literally and we don’t recognise the breadth of thinking involved within each one.
Science calls for kids to be curious, ask questions and conduct experiments.
Technology refers to digital and electronic skills as well as the use of tools.
Engineering has a focus on how and why things work. It invites kids to design, create and build.
Mathematics incorporates many essential concepts including measurement, time, numbers, shapes and patterns.
Thinking more broadly about STEM skills can help show kids that STEM is easy, practical and fun.
This teaches essential life skills (so hopefully they can fend for themselves in their 20s!) but figuring out the ingredients, measurements and cooking times also uses all kinds of science, technology, engineering and maths skills.
A trip to the shops can develop maths confidence. Young children can count the apples into a shopping basket; primary school-age children can compare prices and find the cheapest product; tweens and high schoolers can pitch in on organising the weekly grocery budget. It can also be an introduction to science – try talking about the differences between fruit and vegetables or the process of freezing or canning food.
An afternoon with their hands in the dirt encourages scientific observation and plenty of sensory experiences. As children get older, a family vegetable patch can bring out all kinds of useful lessons. Running a compost bin or a worm farm is great for primary school students, and kids who help in the garden will be rightly proud of their tasty contributions to the dinner table.
Often, the best STEM activities are hands on, open-ended and combine two or more of the four core disciplines.