If you’ve paid any sort of attention to the landscape of education in the last five years, you know that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects are very “in” right now. There’s been a huge push to teach children how to code, Lego Robotics teams are all the rage in schools and at home, and then there’s the perennial frenzy over whether American kids’ math test scores are high enough. Many traditional schools are making a real effort to get kids into the 21st century by issuing laptops, iPads, and other devices.
Obviously the easiest way to teach your 2nd grader electrical engineering, short of enrolling him at MIT at the tender age of six, is to make sure one of his parents is also an electrical engineer. If, for some reason, you have failed to provide your child an engineer parent, do not despair! Whether you’re a homeschooling parent or just want to keep your kids from forgetting everything over the summer, tons of easily accessible STEM resources are available.
Computer programming is everywhere in our lives, even if we don’t often recognize it for what it is. Most animated movies these days are someone’s calculations just as much as they are art. Think of the scores of apps on your smartphone, or even the technology that allows you to read this article right now. Most people who are adults today never heard much about coding until high school or college, but there are lots of opportunities for children to learn how to code when they are young.
- From MIT, we have Scratch, a free online coding instruction program. By dragging and dropping commands, you can create your own animations, stories, and games. Scratch is set up like an open source community that allows users to share their projects and the source code behind them.
- Code.org has a game based on the Disney movie Frozen that teaches coding via a series of puzzles to make snowflake designs. Also uses a drag-and-drop interface. Code.org also has a coding game that has an Angry Birds theme.
- Khan Academy’s coding instruction program is less like a game and more like actual instruction. Like Scratch, Khan Academy is also set up like a community. This one would be more effective for older students (as in, not 8-year-olds).
A solid foundation in mathematics is essential for someone wanting to enter the technology field. Lawmakers are forever lamenting America’s low math scores. Electrical engineering requires a solid basis in multivariable calculus and differential equations. This is a problem in a society where math is automatically labeled “hard,” whether it is or not, and kids who like math are sometimes teased. Kids need to be comfortable with math when they’re young if they are to get into it when they’re older, and something as basic as a math puzzle book can help. Here are some ways to make math fun (or, at the very least, slightly more interesting):
- Math Facts Games. The curator of the Easy Peasy All-in-one online curriculum has assembled a list of free online math games for practicing basic math facts
- Number Munchers. Kids of my generation probably remember playing endless rounds of Number Munchers during computer class in elementary school. Happily, Number Munchers is now classified as abandonware, which makes it freely available to the public at no cost. You can play it in your internet browser at archive.org, or if you are more technologically inclined, you can download it and play it via a DOS emulator.
- Calculus by and for Young People. Don Cohen was a mathematician who ran a math clinic for children, wherein he introduced topics such as infinite series, fractals, and the Fibbonacci sequence. Materials related to this clinic were made free and open to the internet upon his death in 2015. Calculus by and for Young People includes a series of videos (via YouTube), a workbook, and a textbook, both pdfs. If you prefer the actual workbook, it can be purchased here for a little over $10.
- Vi Hart. You may have already run into those “doodling in math class” videos. Those are the work of Vi Hart, who is an expert in explaining interesting calculus concepts with colored sharpies and a spiral notebook. After watching a couple of her videos, you, too, will want nothing more than to go out and count the spirals on pinecones.
- Math Blaster. Another math drill game. It requires registration, but is free. Also available as a mobile app.
- Khan Academy again. While Khan Academy also offers lectures, etc, on a variety of other topics, most of the site is devoted to mathematics. The early math and basic arithmetic section are enjoyable enough that my four-year-old likes to dabble in it from time to time. There is plenty for older students, as well, with courses in algebra, geometry, and calculus. Khan Academy differs from the others because it offers full courses – if you can pass every question and meet the challenges, you can feel confident that you’ve actually mastered the subject. It uses a self-directed learning approach that lets you choose which topics you’d like to cover, so you can save harder questions for later or skip easier ones.
- Hacker YouTube Channels. There are many of these. You’ll know them when you see them. There are about a million and one online tutorials about how use a lemon to light things on fire or a vaccuum cleaner out of a plastic bottle. Most of these projects only require basic items usually found around the house, in addition to wires and nine volt batteries.
- TeachEngineering.org. This is a teacher’s dream. Oodles of free lesson plans for all grades in a variety of subjects related to science.
Yes, old college textbooks. I use them for my elementary school-age kids. If you know where to look, these are easily sourced for cheap, and have lots of pictures. I live in a college town, so our local thrift store is full of textbooks that the university bookstore wouldn’t buy back. Last year I found a 1000+ page biology book with the glossy pages and fancy illustrations and it only set me back $4. If it’s good enough for Biology 101, it’s good enough for me. In my experience, it’s a lot easier as a teacher to dumb down a text than it is to try and give more detail when it’s not printed in the book, so it’s easy to work a level you and your child are comfortable with. For my first grader, looking at the pictures and reading the captions is more than satisfactory at this point.
Check Your Local University
The university in my town has a lot of programs open to the public that are specifically to encourage children’s interest in STEM fields. Our local university had an engineering expo for middle and high school students this last spring. Many local schools brought their students on field trips, but as it was open to the public I went along with my elementary-aged kids and we had a fabulous time. The physics department also hosts a big astronomy day for the community every May, with activities for all ages. The scope of university-sponsored family activities varies considerably from one establishment to another, so you’ll just have to ask around or check out the university’s website.
Visit Your Local Library
Libraries aren’t just for checking out books, any more! Some libraries have summer or after school programs for Lego Robotics or computer programming. The children’s nonfiction section is full of possibilities in itself.
This is not anywhere close to an exhaustive list. If you’ve found something that you find useful for teaching STEM subjects, let us know in the comments!
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