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What Parents Should Know about STEM to Help Their Children 

Introduction: Why Should Your Child Explore STEM?

A child learns to walk first by crawling, then by holding on to a railing, and then by letting go to take his or her first independent baby steps. The gradual timeline of learning to walk should also apply to children exploring STEM. When it comes to STEM, diving headfirst into the rapidly advancing fields of technology or the complex world of applied mathematics—for individuals at any age—seems more intimidating than rewarding. And yet educators are faced with a daunting—if not impossible—task of inspiring and guiding children individually through the world of STEM. But despite a teacher’s best efforts, students at every grade level are either gaining or losing interest in STEM subjects, for various reasons. That is why a parent’s involvement is crucial to help a child master STEM subjects within and beyond the classroom.

Parents should encourage their children to start as early as preschool and continue to foster their interest in STEM throughout their education, whether it’s participating in the science fair, joining the mathletes club, or learning to code. STEM activities for kindergarten students will be easier for those who have been practicing STEM in early childhood. And by the time they reach high school, they are well-prepared to apply their knowledge and skills in the college classroom and eventually the work environment. In the following chapters we’ll outline what your child needs to know about STEM at the elementary, middle school, and high school stages and how you can prepare them for a rewarding career.

Ch. 1: Elementary School (K-5th grade)

Ch. 2: Middle School (6th-8th grade)

Ch. 3: High School (9th-12th grade)

Chapter 1: Elementary School

Introducing STEM in early childhood can be as simple as going for a walk, visiting a museum, or gazing up at the stars in the night sky. STEM in preschool could involve growing a garden, building with blocks, or playing with dinosaurs. At such a young age, children are receptive to new and creative experiences, and parents and teachers alike have many ways of introducing STEM concepts. But why is STEM important in early childhood? Research has shown that the rapid neural connections being made every second during early childhood create an optimal time period for children to be naturally curious.

The experimental nature of science and the problem-solving focus of mathematics and engineering introduced to elementary school students will help them excel in other subjects, such as language arts.

STEM activities for kindergarten students can advance to teacher-led science experiments or looking after a class pet. Regardless of the student’s age, grade level, or gender, STEM can be seamlessly woven into activities and assignments to teach a wide variety of concepts.

Elementary school parents can encourage STEM learning in three simple ways:

  • Welcome questions: At a young age, children are naturally very curious. Encouraging elementary-level students to ask questions will pique their interest in their surroundings and how the world “works.” For every question you don’t know the answer to, consider it an opportunity to research the answer together. This way, you will model research practices to a young and eager mind.
  • Try out educational TV: It’s not a question of whether your child is watching television or movies. It’s a question of how the content teaches or supports STEM. Explore the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth or simpler shows, such as Sid the Science Kid, to spur your child’s imagination.
  • Take a trip to a science museum: For a first-grader, there’s nothing quite like seeing a dinosaur up close and personal. A fascination with space, dinosaurs, or ancient civilizations that is sparked with television is taken to the next level at a museum that further encourages a child’s mind to continue exploring.

How to know if your student is on track with STEM education

Understanding the Standards

Education standards are usually drafted at the state level to give educators a clear understanding of what is expected of students and how they can contribute to the learning process. Parents should be aware of how their child’s classroom instruction, homework and projects align with state expectations for STEM so that they can provide support and any necessary guidance along the way.

The Next Generation Science Standards are the current standards developed for state school systems that are replacing the National Science Education Standards from the National Research Council (NRC) and Benchmarks for Science Literacy from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). They are internationally benchmarked to ensure American students are competitive with the science education levels of other countries.

The Common Core standards have been developed by state education chiefs and governors from 48 states, and are designed to prepare students for college and career. These standards cover English language arts/literacy and mathematics.

How to Know Your Elementary School Student is on Track in the Following STEM Fields

Science

Grades K-2

  • Students are taught the fundamentals of the nature of science:
    • Scientific investigations begin with a question.
    • Scientists look for patterns when making observations.
    • Scientific knowledge can change once new evidence is discovered.
    • Science uses models, laws, theories, and mechanisms to communicate ideas and explain natural events.

Grades 3-5

  • Students will continue to build on their understanding of the definition of science, methodology, and the tools used to:
    • Perform experiments
    • Take measurements
    • Record observations

Technology

Grades K-2

  • Students will:
    • Study how changes in information technologies affect the workplace and society.
    • Be introduced to conducting research online.
    • Analyze a source’s accuracy, relevance, credibility, and bias regarding real-world problems.

Grades 3-5

  • Students will:
    • Practice using various tools, software, and simulations to learn and conduct research.
    • Complete assignments using productivity and multimedia tools and collaborate with others on group assignments.
    • Learn the basic concepts of hardware, software, and connectivity, and their relevance and application in problem-solving.

Engineering

Grades K-2

  • Students will:
    • Be introduced to problems or situations that need to be changed.
    • Use tools and materials to create representations of potential solutions to find the best one.
    • Develop a thought process that identifies the needs or goals in finding a solution.

Grades 3-5

  • Students will:
    • Define a problem and identify constraints of possible solutions.
    • Conduct research and experimentation to optimize a solution based on test results.
    • Optimize solutions through testing.

Mathematics

Grades K-2

  • Students are taught:
    • How to represent and compare whole numbers.
    • How to describe shapes and space.
    • Addition and subtraction and various strategies to solve problems.
    • Whole number relationships.
    • Linear measurement.
    • How to reason about geometric shapes.
    • Base-10 notation.

Grades 3-5

  • Students learn about:
    • Multiplication and division
    • Fractions
      • Equivalence
      • Addition
      • Subtraction
      • Decimal
    • Rectangle shape and area.
    • How to describe and analyze two-dimensional shapes.
    • Multi-digit multiplication.
    • Dividing to find quotients involving multi-digit dividends.
    • Properties of geometric shapes.
      • Parallel sides
      • Perpendicular sides
      • Particular angle measures
      • Volume
      • Symmetry

Additional Tools and Resources for Elementary School Students:

Common Sense

Take advantage of our digital age’s educational offerings and consider the potential of games to teach and inspire:

https://www.commonsense.org/education/top-picks/best-picks-for-early-childhood-stem-learning

EngineerGirl

Designed to attract girls to the engineering profession, female students of all ages can learn more about the industry, participate in competitions, find STEM clubs, and learn more about pursuing a career in the field.

https://www.engineergirl.org/

Exploratorium

An online resource for parents and students to learn more about the world through science and art, the Exploratorium also has six galleries that allow visitors to indulge their curiosity with hands-on activities.

https://www.exploratorium.edu/about-us

Chapter 2: Middle School

For various reasons, around the age of 15, girls lose interest in STEM subjects. Whether as a result of gender stereotypes, conformity to social expectations, or a lack of role models, a survey commissioned by Microsoft found that though girls are most interested in STEM at age 11, the interest does not rebound after age 15. Unfortunately, girls’ experiences with STEM in early childhood don’t always continue on into middle school.

Parents of female junior high students should make an effort to introduce them to the field of computer science through other avenues. For instance, pointing to public figures admired by middle school girls who are making coding popular—such as supermodel Karlie Kloss and her company Kode with Klossy—could raise the appeal of a historically male-dominant field.

Parents should also search out other opportunities offered by nonprofit organizations such as Girls Who Code. Their mission is to offer students learning opportunities in computer science and create a pathway for middle and high school students to join the computing workforce. After-school clubs are geared toward girls in sixth through 12th grade, and a seven-week summer program for high school sophomores and juniors is an even more immersive experience.

Getting students—especially females— excited about STEM is crucial at this level and not as hard as it may seem. Simply encouraging a child to participate in extracurriculars during middle school will help to cultivate students’ interest in STEM subjects and will surely continue on into high school.

How Middle School Parents Can Encourage STEM Learning

  • Bridge the classroom with extracurricular activities:For junior high students who are losing interest in STEM, parents can guide them to national math and science competitions. From building robots to programming, students will start to see how truly valuable STEM is in the real world.
  • Start exploring career options:Another way to encourage STEM exploration is to help students visualize themselves in a rewarding career. Rapid changes in the field are creating new types of jobs that your child may not even be aware of.
  • Open their eyes to STEM’s global impact:With iPhones, VR goggles, and hoverboards topping Christmas and birthday wish lists, expounding to junior high students the daily and global impact of STEM will cause them to reconsider their disinterest or further pique their curiosity.

Understanding the Standards

As with elementary school, the following standards are from the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core. Middle school is a critical time for parents to build on the progress made by their child at the elementary school level and ensure their student does not lose interest in STEM.

How to Know Your Middle School Student is on Track in the Following STEM Fields

Science

  • Students will:
    • Explore the human traits necessary in the field of science, such as:
      • Persistence
      • Precision
      • Reasoning
      • Imagination
      • Creativity
      • Tolerance of ambiguity, and
      • Openness to new ideas
    • Learn that technology influences advances in the field of science
    • Deepen their understanding of core scientific principles

Technology

  • Students will:
    • Apply strategies to identify and solve routine hardware and software problems:
    • Exhibit ethical behavior with regard to privacy, passwords, and personal information.
    • Understand copyright and how to cite digital sources.
    • Complete assignments in formats such as web pages and video using the latest software.
    • Use computer applications to perform a variety of tasks, such as:
      • Creating and formatting charts
      • Working with spreadsheet data
      • Solving problems
    • Conduct online research and evaluate the results for credibility, usefulness, and relevance.
    • Be introduced to multiple programming languages and learn the basic concepts of web design.
    • Collaborate with others using telecommunications tools to solve problems and complete assignments.

Engineering

  • Students will:
    • Develop their understanding of problems by adding another dimension and examining the larger context of the problem.
    • Identify the elements of a solution that will enable them to form new possible solutions.
    • Apply systematic methods to compare different solutions and choose an optimal design after testing and making revisions.

Mathematics

  • Students will master the following:
    • Ratios and proportional relationship
      • Solving multiplication and division problems using ratio concepts and whole numbers, as well as understanding proportional relationships.
    • The number system
      • Work with expressions and linear equations and understand how to solve problems with negative numbers.
    • Expressions and equations
      • Create formulas and develop reasoning about expressions and equations to solve problems such as linear equations and systems of linear equations.
    • Functions:
      • Use functions to describe quantitative relationships.
    • Geometry:
      • Use concepts such as congruence and Pythagorean theorem to analyze two- and three-dimensional space and solve problems for area, surface area, and volume.
    • Statistics and probability: Students will be introduced to statistical thinking and will learn how to draw inferences about populations based on samples.

Additional Tools and Resources for Middle School Students:

Girls Who Code

Girls who would like to explore the opportunities in the field of technology could join after-school clubs and enroll in specialized summer courses. The nonprofit organization has been supported by global companies all striving to close the gender gap in computing roles. And what’s even more exciting is 60 companies have pledged to hire Girls Who Code alumnae!

https://girlswhocode.com/about-us/

Khan Academy

Through this revolutionary, personalized approach to learning, students interested in STEM will benefit from the academy’s partnership with NASA, the California Academy of Sciences, and MIT to access specialized content.

https://www.khanacademy.org/

Chapter 3: High School

With college just around the corner, parents are eager to hear their high school student declare their choice of college major and career. No doubt they are hoping their students’ experiences with STEM in early childhood, preschool, and kindergarten will influence their decisions at this stage. At the high school level, parents should stay aware of the latest research on what influences student interest in STEM and keep in mind the various opportunities available so that they can encourage their teen’s participation.

Research has shown there are three main categories that affect student interest in STEM:

  1. Extracurricular experiences
    1. Introduced to STEM by a friend or relative
    2. STEM in early childhood: nature, astronomy, etc.
    3. Books, television, film
    4. Visiting a museum
  2. Classroom experiences
    1. Lab experiments
    2. Influence of a high school teacher
  3. Hands-on projects
    1. Science fair
    2. Research experience

According to survey findings published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), extracurricular experiences were the most influential in igniting student interest in STEM. Additionally, an engaging and enthusiastic teacher further helped cultivate students’ interest in exploring STEM. Parents can continue to encourage their high school students’ STEM interest by exploring with them the many career options available with a STEM-related college education. The final push can be helping students imagine themselves in a career that has a global impact and offers great rewards.

How to Know Your High School Student is on Track in the Following STEM Fields

Science

  • Students will:
    • Learn about the limitations of science and how scientists’ backgrounds and society influence their findings.
    • Explore how science as a way of knowing is different from other ways of knowing.

Technology

  • Students will:
    • Be able to type an average of at least 60 words per minute.
    • Have advanced skills in Microsoft Office Word, Excel, and PowerPoint software.
    • Develop digital communication skills across email, texting, chat, and social media.
    • Gain an understanding of “netiquette,” or communicating online with respect
    • Learn about online safety, antivirus software, spam, phishing, disclosure of personal information, and cybercrime.

Engineering

  • Students will:
    • Tackle problems of social and global significance that need to be simplified
    • Apply quantitative methods to compare the potential of the proposed solutions.
    • Research how prior solutions have been applied and their results.
    • Use computer simulations and math to test solutions under varying conditions.

Mathematics

  • Students will master the following:
    • Number and quantity
      • Understand rational numbers and use variables to describe numbers or relationships.
    • Algebra:
      • Solve equations and understand expressions.
    • Functions:
      • Build, analyze, and use functions to describe relationships between quantities.
    • Geometry:
      • Understand geometric theorems and apply geometric concepts to real-world situations.
    • Modeling:
      • Explore applications across other fields, such as engineering and quantum physics.
    • Statistics and probability:
      • Learn the rules of probability and use them to solve real-world problems.

Additional Tools and Resources for High School Students:

The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes

Paying for college can be easier with a scholarship. Available to contestants ages eight to 18, winners have made significant contributions to humanitarian efforts and environmental projects.

https://barronprize.org/

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Taking a look at this comprehensive guide to careers in STEM will help college-bound students decide if STEM is right for them.

https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2017/science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem-occupations-past-present-and-future/home.htm

Looking Ahead to a Career in STEM

On graduation day, students and parents look back to the progress that was made and wonder about the future ahead. With a career in STEM, both students and parents can be confident that a higher education will refine what was learned in the years before and prepare for a rewarding and challenging career.

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