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What is STEM - and why should you care?

Key things parents can do to give their children an edge in science, technology, engineering, and math.

By Carol Lloyd

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?

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"We have a very active STEM (or STEAM) club in our schools. It is run by an outside volunteer. Good Luck getting your school to advocate ~ don't know how you would do this if they are not already interested. Here are a few links for a parent to follow: (I got this email) ((Also you may Google "RealWorld InWorld" and Check out the following NASA opportunities for the education community. Full descriptions are listed below. NASA History Division Spring and Summer 2012 Internships Audience: Higher Education Educators and Students Spring 2012 Application Deadline: Oct. 30, 2011 Summer 2012 Application Deadline: Feb. 4, 2012 Vector Addition: Math and Science @ Work -- Lunar Surface Instrumentation Web Seminar Audience: Physics Teachers and Informal Educators Event Date: Nov. 1, 2011 Expedition Earth and Beyond Webinars Audience: K-12 Educators Event Dates: Various dates through Dec. 20, 2011 NASA Explorer Schools Live Video Chat: Year of the Solar System Audience: 8-12 Educators and Students Event Date: Nov. 3, 2011 Engineering Design Challenge: Water Filtration Web Seminar Audience: Physics teachers and Informal Educators Event Date: Nov. 3, 2011 Expedition 31 and 32 In-flight Education Downlink Opportunity Audience: All Educators Proposal Deadline: Dec. 21, 2011 2011 OPTIMUS PRIME Spinoff Video Contest Audience: Grade 3-12 Students Registration Deadline: Jan. 3, 2012 Video Submission Deadline: Jan. 17, 2012 2011-2012 Faculty Institutes for NASA Earth and Space Science Education Audience: Higher Education Educators Workshop Dates: Jan. 3-4, 2012 Electronic Professional Development Network Courses Audience: 5-12 Educators Using Robotics to Enhance STEM Learning: Jan. 18-Feb. 28, 2012 Technology Integration -- Vodcasts: Feb. 8-March 13, 2012 Don’t Just Show Me the Numbers; Make Sense of the Information: Feb. 29-April 3, 2012 Project-Based Inquiry Learning: March 14-April 17, 2012 Technology Integration -- 3-D Visualizations: March 21-April 24, 2012 Technology Integration -- Turn Your Classroom Digital: April 4-May 8, 2012 GOOD LUCK! "
"Not sure if greatschools gets 'political' but this issue rises above politics. I would love any suggestions for parents on how to advocate for STEM curriculum, both in their own children's schools but also how to participate in the national effort. Finally, how about a STEM criteria when you're rating schools. "