STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. And, if you want your children to succeed in our innovation-driven, technical world, they will need STEM skills, especially engineering.
Government and industry leaders are concerned that employers can’t find workers with the STEM competencies necessary in a global, 21st century economy.
Happily, core elements of STEM – creativity, collaboration, critical thinking — are innate in children during play. Kids actually emerge from the womb fascinated by how to make things. In fact, whenever your child builds a castle out of sand or makes a snowman, she or he uses engineering skills.
But, when I arrived from Greece in 1980 to study engineering at Tufts University, I was shocked that many people didn’t know what engineering was. And, when an 8th grader asked me for help with a science project and her teacher said not to waste my time, I helped her anyway. Ever since, I have worked to put the “E” in STEM for girls and boys everywhere.
I believe that introducing our children to engineering design skills and concepts will engage them in applying their math and science knowledge to solve real problems. Engineering brings math and science alive, makes them relevant, and may even spark future scientists and engineers. This process also led to the innovation of technologies that put the first man on the moon.
We must start this process early before children lose interest in math and science. Here are a few reasons why engineering is good for children as early as kindergarten:
- Engaging children in these skills – identifying a problem, designing a solution, testing and improving the design – offers a platform for learning not only in math and science, but also in English language arts, history and social studies. Engineering pulls together other disciplines in project-based learning. For example, if a second grade class needs to build an outdoor shelter for a pet rabbit, students will solve this problem, using math to measure the bunny and figure out the hutch dimensions, art skills to make the hutch appealing, English to communicate ideas, and social skills to convince someone to clean the cage.
- Engineering is rich in hands-on activities that children already do at school and play. Allowing for failure, engineering can open doors for learners of all backgrounds and abilities in groups underrepresented in technology and engineering. Being a pop star or athlete may seem much more appealing to kids without role models to guide them towards science or engineering.
- But, most important, technological literacy is basic literacy for living in the 21st century. Imagine our world without buildings, cars, clothing, surgeries or other technologies created by engineers. Our science curriculum mainly addresses the natural world, not the engineered one we interact with daily. So our children learn more about grasshoppers and dinosaurs than cars or bridges. But which do we deal with daily? Our kids need these skills to function in our world.
To introduce students and visitors to the engineering design cycle, the Museum of Science, Boston has featured Design Challenges since 2005. By participating in hands-on activities to design, build and test prototype solutions to problems, visitors of all ages have had fun creating and testing miniature bobsleds, sailboats and satellites. You and your child can also design a virtual birdhouse that will keep a bird warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Play the game now!
Formerly dean of Tufts school of engineering, Ioannis Miaoulis is president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston.