Science, technology, engineering, and math. This catchy acronym for these four academic fields has been pulsing through the collective consciousness for years. But 2011 has been a bumper year for STEM sloganeering. STEM conferences abound (for everyone from military personnel to women of color), school principals have declared that 2011 is “the year of STEM,” and countless newspaper articles dutifully report on various state and federal STEM initiatives, along with STEM-centric schools and classes.

All this ruckus about STEM is rooted in a daunting educational reality. In the latest PISA tests (assessments of 15-year-olds from around the world), American kids ranked # 31 in math and #23 in science — far behind many other industrialized nations. A lack of qualified science and math teachers in our public schools means that many children end up getting taught math by teachers whose expertise is really American history or language arts. With such intransigent problems, is it any wonder that technology companies can’t find enough Americans to fill their jobs, and end up recruiting from other countries?

From professionals to parents

STEM has always been the purview of experts. Coined 120 years ago by the Committee of Ten at Harvard, these educators sought to modernize a school system originally based on agrarian values and thereby prepare students for an increasingly industrialized technological society. (Hello electricity!) Since then, every time politicians, policy wonks, and education pundits realize that America is slipping behind in science and math, they begin churning out STEM initiatives, STEM schools, and advocating for STEM curriculum.

Yet as the primary influence on our children’s education, it’s worth asking where parents fit into the STEM equation. The answer (like everything that relates to parenting) is both simple and complex. If your child’s school doesn’t have excellent science and math programs, replacing that education won’t be easy.

Full-STEM ahead

However, parents can inject STEM learning into their children’s lives in numerous ways:

1) Don’t assume your child’s school has it covered. If you suspect that your child’s school isn’t giving your child an adequate STEM education, think about adding STEM-themed after-school activities and weekend outings. Look for camps and programs that will teach your child something new — Robotics, Mathletes — that she wouldn’t get in school.

2) Explore what works for your kids and find where their STEM sweet spot lies. Even simple things (a terrarium for growing beans) can make a huge difference. Does your child love to build things? Go with it. Block play is associated with later math competence. Got a nature lover? Get outside. Many scientists cite their early exposure to nature as the reason they found careers in science.

3) Finally, keep STEM in mind whenever you spend time with your child. Choose movies to watch with science themes. (Science documentaries like Winged Migration, LIFE or Walking with Cavemen can deliver exceptional learning in the framework of family fun.) Or pick board games that build STEM brain cells. Did you know that chess is linked to math aptitude? When you’re shopping, look for STEM toys. (Our Golden Apple STEM winners will give you a good place to start.)

Whatever you do — make learning about these amazing fields fun. Because no matter how complicated (and bureaucratic) the experts may make it seem, STEM means expanding your child’s mind. And if that’s not the parent’s job, what is?