Ways to nurture your child's interest in STEM

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When it comes to interest in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), my kids are lucky to have had a supportive environment. Both their parents are engineers (Although I don't work in STEM right now, I have a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering and a master's degree in systems engineering. Alfie has a bachelor's degree in computer engineering and has worked in the field for almost 30 years), so numbers come easily to all of us. Being a "math nerd" is not a bad thing, and at this point, all 3 kids show interest and aptitude in science and math.

But if you are a parent who considers themselves "bad" at math, you might be at a loss as to how to nurture your child's interest in STEM fields. You might feel like you can't really help them with their homework (especially starting in middle school) because the math is just too intimidating. You want to encourage them to pursue their interests but don't really know how. If your child is a girl, it might be even more challenging, because you might not know of any role models you can point out (According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs). I've written several posts about ways to get girls more interested in STEM careers,  Here are four things that any parent can do to nurture their child's interest and abilities in science and math:

Invest in toys that encourage open-ended exploration

I can't say enough about building toys like Lego and KNEX. Kids learn how to follow instructions and analyze diagrams. They learn to recognize patterns. They learn how to build things up and break them down. They learn how to figure out solutions when they're stuck. All of these are valuable STEM skills! The benefits add up even more when kids throw away the instruction manual and start to build on their own. They learn how to problem solve -- they learn how to figure out what works and what doesn't, and how to build things to meet their needs.

Get involved in your child's science and math education

If you have the time to volunteer for a science project, seize the opportunity! Show your child that you are interested in math and science. If you can't make it during school hours, don't worry. There are lots of other ways to show your child that you think science and math are cool. Show an interest in their math and science homework. Help him or her brainstorm a project for the science fair. Attend your school's math and/or science night.
cow eye dissection

Make science fun at home

There are so many activities kids and parents can do at home that help build science and math skills. Even something as simple as baking can get kids working on fractions, multiplication, and measuring! One of the most entertaining birthday party activities I ever devised was a building contest. Kids were given toothpicks and marshmallows and told to build the tallest tower possible in a set amount of time. Everyone had a great time! They quickly figured out some of the basics of structural engineering while engaging in friendly competition with their friends.

Encourage your child to join a science club or a competition

A great way to nurture kids' interests in STEM is to sign them up for an afterschool club, a summer camp, or (for older kids) a conference dedicated to STEM, or even a competition. The word "competition" can sound really scary to a kid, and no parent wants to be the pushy parent who forces their kid to compete -- but competitions can be fun, and they don't have to be showstopper events to teach kids valuable lessons. Case in point: I'm the noontime activities coordinator at our local elementary school, and one of our most popular activities is the annual Building Challenge. I pretty much took the marshmallow tower building concept and turned it into a multi-week competition, with different building materials every week. Kids work in teams, so they're learning teamwork as well as the laws of physics! If your school has something like this, by all means encourage your child to join. If your school doesn't, ask your local PTA to help you organize one!

Small school challenges like these are the first step to more serious competitions, and if your child shows like he or she wants to pursue STEM projects on a more serious level, there are many competitions out there. Many grade schools and middle schools have science clubs or robotics clubs that field teams to local competitions. Do you have a budding scientist on your hands? Encourage them to enter the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge!

About the Young Scientist Challenge

The Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge is the nation’s premier science competition for grades 5-8. Through the program, young inventors have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work closely with a 3M Scientist Mentor, compete for $25,000, and earn the title of “America's Top Young Scientist.”

The mission of the Young Scientist Challenge is to foster a new generation of American scientists at an age when interest in science generally declines. In 2008, Discovery Education teamed up with 3M, one of the world’s most notable innovators – to cultivate the next generation of problem solvers and give students an opportunity to receive mentorship from 3M scientists.

 How the Challenge Works

•Call for entries is currently open through April, 20, 2016. To enter, participants must submit a one-to-two-minute video describing the science behind a new innovation or solution that could solve or impact an everyday problem.

•Judges evaluate the entries through April and May based on creativity, scientific knowledge, persuasiveness and overall presentation. Videos will not be judged on production skills and may be recorded on cell phones or basic digital cameras.

•Ten finalists are announced in the summer. These participants will be challenged to develop their innovations that positively impacts lives (including them, their family, their community or the global population). The students will participate in a mentorship program during which they will get the opportunity to work one-on-one with renowned 3M scientists as their mentors.

•Each finalist will also receive a trip to the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minn., to compete at the final event in October 2016

For more information on the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, including submission guidelines, tips from previous winners and complete rules, please visit www.youngscientistchallenge.com. Submissions will be accepted through April 13, 2016

Disclosure: This is a compensated post.  Information about the Young Scientist Challenge (in italics) was provided by The MOMS. The views and opinions expressed here are my own.

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