How to encourage STEM learning at home

You don’t need to be an expert, or spend a lot of money, to support your child’s education

Generally speaking, parents want their kids to see them as experts in the field of well, all things. But we are human, so the reality of this falls somewhat short of that ideal.

This is never truer for some parents when it comes to STEM and their little ones. After all, reading a book or coloring a picture, that’s easy. They can do that all day long. But doing science, technology, engineering or math projects with your child? Well, that sounds really hard, so maybe it is better left to the experts or a kit you can buy online.

“I think it’s great that there’s been this focus on STEM. But I think in some ways it’s made parents intimidated or makes them think they have to be experts,” said Emily Kerr, coordinator of the STEM Discovery Lab at the University of New Hampshire.

“I see all these things, like you can order these subscriptions for these engineering kits in the mail. It’s the feeling that you have to spend all this money and that’s just not the case.”

Kerr said that a simple walk outside where parents and kids do things like counting or observing leaves or bugs, notice patterns, sorting things or picking up items in a nature scavenger hunt, is all very scientific.

In fact, many things that you do around the house every day — cooking, sewing, fixing, finances, unclogging a drain using baking soda and vinegar — all of these things hold STEM concepts.

“It can be practical,” said Kerr. “It doesn’t have to be glamorous.”

Also, said Ross Gittell, chancellor for the Community College System of New Hampshire, it’s OK to let your kids see that you don’t know everything. And that’s a good thing.

“Think of it as learning together with your child,” he said. “Your child learns from example how to be curious, how to explore, how to discover and how to reflect on that discovery. And if they do that with you, you are reinforcing that is something important that’s something you care about that’s something you can do together.”

Many times encouraging a child to engage in science and math has more to do with attitude, said Rob Lukasiak, president of the New Hampshire Teachers of Mathematics.

“We should all do our best to not contribute to creating a negative attitude toward mathematics,” Lukasiak said. “You don’t have to be able to do the mathematics for your child. Rather, be part of a support system, along with teachers and many others, to encourage your child to practice and even struggle at times. Become an advocate for the power of learning mathematics. Try not to give up. Look for resources to help.”

One of the ways you can help, said Laura Nickerson, who runs the STEM Teachers’ Collaborative at the University of New Hampshire, is when you don’t know something to show them how to find the answer on Google, for example. From there, she said, you can also teach kids how to look critically at information sources and you can show them that even though you’re a mom or a dad, “and kind of old” in their eyes anyway, you can still learn new things.

“It’s OK to not have the answer to everything,” Nate Greene, New Hampshire Department of Education Science Education Consultant said. “Science is about asking questions and learning how to find out information. So the best way to encourage kids at home is to model that for your kids.”  

Melanie Plenda is an award-winning freelance writer based in Keene.

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