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Experts Weigh in on How Parents Can Get Their Kids Interested in S.T.E.M.

Michelle Washmuth
March 5, 2017

Five experts share their tips on what parents can do to boost their kids' interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

Image via Unsplash

A University of Chicago study found that parents who talk to high-schoolers about science and math not only sparks career interest, but can boost their competence in fields that involve science, technology, engineering and math (S.T.E.M.).

But when can you start the conversation with your child about S.T.E.M.? Is there too young of an age, or is the earlier the better? Parents may also worry that they’re pressuring their children too much by starting S.T.E.M. education.

In honor of "Girls in S.T.E.M. Awareness Month," we chatted with experts on how you can get your child interested in S.T.E.M. and what you can be doing to encourage your children’s interest in math and science.

Do you think talking to elementary school aged kids about S.T.E.M. would increase their interest in those types of topics? 

"Yes, elementary school is a great time to talk about S.T.E.M. with children! Research suggests that middle school is when students start to consider careers in S.T.E.M., so elementary school is a great time to help build their interest in fun S.T.E.M. activities. Parents can also find age-appropriate ways to talk about S.T.E.M. with preschoolers to take advantage of their natural curiosity and exploration."

- Allison Master, Ph.D., research scientist at the University of Washington

"Learning about S.T.E.M. skills cannot start too early. Even in preschool, young children begin exploring their world through a S.T.E.M. lense. They ask questions like 'Do we last forever?' 'Why do you have more?' 'Why does my tower keep falling down?' These skills are a way of seeing and understanding their world that gives meaning to everyday events. Parents should absolutely talk about S.T.E.M. fields to their children when they’re young — tell them what engineers, doctors, scientists, farmers and others do and hopefully provide opportunities for their children to meet women and men in those fields. However, they shouldn’t limit their discussion of S.T.E.M. fields to these areas. S.T.E.M. skills are important in nearly every field. Parents should talk to their children about teaching, social services, law, community agencies, etc. Parents should be emphasizing the development of S.T.E.M. skills rather than seeking after specific careers."

- David J. Purpura, Ph.D., assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University

What can parents do earlier on to encourage their kids, particularly girls, to be more interested in S.T.E.M.​​​​​​​?

"By encouraging them to ask questions and to try to find answers, encouraging them to do S.T.E.M. projects at early age. S.T.E.M. projects may happen inside a school setting. But at home, they can help their parent make a cake using a recipe and  different parts of a recipe -- that’s S.T.E.M. That’s science, engineering, math and technology in action and I think that’s exciting and peaks students’ interest at early age and that’s for girls and boys."

- Marlena Jones, acting director of the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE) at Carnegie Science, and the acting director of the D.C. S.T.E.M. Network

"A natural way to nurture mathematical or scientific thinking, in addition to expanding upon 'math talk' during play and daily routines, is to recognize that girls are good at math, and avoid unintentionally conveying an attitude that S.T.E.M. subjects are 'too hard' or 'not for girls.' Negative attitudes about math emerge even in first and second graders, and there is some evidence that children’s negative attitudes about mathematics are related to their parents’ negative attitudes about mathematics. Try to be mindful of what message you might be sending… Unfortunately, the stereotype that girls are bad at math continues to be an obstacle to girls’ success with math. Be ready to dispute this myth. The research supports you!  The so-called gender-gap in math ability is shrinking, and girls have more opportunities to see themselves as mathematical and scientific thinkers than they did decades ago. Individual girls need to know that this stereotype does not apply to them."

- Michèle Mazzocco, Ph.D., professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota

How can parents talk to their kids about S.T.E.M. without putting pressure on them?

"Follow your children’s lead. If they ask a question about S.T.E.M. and you don’t know the answer, go discover the answer together. If you know people in S.T.E.M. careers, talk to your children about them (and make sure to point out that many different kinds of people do S.T.E.M. — men and women; people who are similar to them and people who are different from them). Another important thing to emphasize is that everyone can get better at S.T.E.M. with practice and effort — you don’t have to be a genius or a “math person” to succeed in S.T.E.M."

- Allison Master, Ph.D., research scientist at the University of Washington

"The key to exciting students in S.T.E.M. is realizing that it’s oftentimes multiple explorations, multiple investigations for a kid to decide whether or not they want to think about that as a career and I think that happens over a number of years."

Marlena Jones, acting director of the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE) at Carnegie Science, and the acting director of the D.C. S.T.E.M. Network

Can getting young kids involved in S.T.E.M.-focused schools/clubs/activities affect their career choices down the road?

"They’re certainly nice to have and if all parents had an opportunity to have their students do those I would say that would be great but I don’t see those as prerequisites for S.T.E.M. careers because I think just like any other activity students engage in, there’s always this possibility of burnout. We have kids who play sports and they get to the point where they don’t want to play the sport because it seems like it’s more for the parent than it is for the kid. That’s probably not something that will happen frequently in S.T.E.M. careers, but something that we’re not immune from that. You do so much with putting them in these after school programs and clubs that are S.T.E.M. related that at some point might turn the kid off and the kid might get frustrated and tired just like he or she would if he or she was playing a sport or something that was pushed on them."

- Malcolm Butler, Ph.D., professor in the School of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership at the University of Central Florida.

"Yes, I think it allows them to explore different options that are available out there and they can, through exploration, find out if they like a different aspect of S.T.E.M. and then continue to explore it if they’re fascinated by it or decide to go into something else if they’re not so excited by it."

- Marlena Jones, acting director of the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE) at Carnegie Science, and the acting director of the D.C. S.T.E.M. Network

What's the most important message parents should take with them when it comes to supporting their children’s S.T.E.M.​​​​​​​-focused interests?

"I think the most important message, and one that is very exciting, is that parents can make a meaningful difference in their children’s S.T.E.M.-related development from early childhood through high school. This doesn’t need to be interpreted as a weighty burden, because the impact parents seem to have is from talking to their children during, and about, everyday activities like play, household routines, and hobbies. Talk to your toddler and preschoolers during play. As you play with your child, discover the math and discuss it. Point out the math your children are doing when they follow the baseball statistics, playing board games, try to rig up a skateboard ramp, bake brownies, or use a pattern to sew a new outfit."

- Michèle Mazzocco, Ph.D., professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota

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