There are a million ways to parent, all of them valid in their own way. But one of the most important obligations of today’s parents is to raise scientifically literate kids. Let’s explore what I mean.
About STEM and Scientific Literacy
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It’s an integrated approach to learning, that views these subjects as interconnected, rather than separate disciplines for separate times and uses. The truth is that in the real world, these four subjects overlap in big ways. It only makes sense that they’re taught that way too.
Scientific literacy, simplified, is the ability to apply science to your daily life. But more eloquently, “Scientific literacy is the capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity. (OECD 2003:132–33)”.
It’s not “literacy” in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a mindset. The ability to think critically, evaluate data, and apply information.
“[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world…” – President Obama
Why We Should All Be Raising Scientifically Literate Kids
Many schools struggle to provide an adequate STEM education.
As parents, it’s easy to brush off math and science and say, “They learn that stuff in school”. The truth is that they may not be. Our public school systems are struggling to provide adequate STEM coursework. Only 73% of fourth graders have teachers who report having the resources they need to adequately teach mathematics. 61% of eighth graders have teachers who report having what they need to adequately teach science. Most elementary classroom science education is happening in less than three hours per week. Only 20% of U.S. high school seniors are grade-level proficient in science.
They’re also struggling to provide educators who hold STEM degrees or even have received professional development in science. Science isn’t part of school performance ratings, so it makes sense that they’d skimp here. Anecdotally, I was shocked by how many of my elementary school colleagues didn’t view science as “important” and would openly admit to frequently skipping it for weeks or even entire semesters.
It’s also easy to discount the importance of technology and computer science education, because Millenials and subsequent generations were virtually born with smart devices in their hands. However, U.S. Millenials ranked last in computer skills against 19 other countries. They know how to use social media, but they may not know how to build a website or troubleshoot problems.
STEM careers are a large part of our future.
STEM careers are growing almost three times faster than any other field. 80% of the fastest growing careers require a STEM background.
Yet, there’s a shortage of STEM degree holding professionals. There’s an estimated 3 million STEM jobs unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants, while only 16% of American high school seniors are interested in pursuing STEM degrees. 60% of this century’s jobs require skills that are only held by 20% of the current workforce.
STEM needs more diversity.
Only 17% of recent female college graduates had earned a STEM degree and the amount of women working in STEM-related fields has plateaued. Less than 25% of computer science degrees are held by women.
This divergence starts in early elementary school and carries on through high school. More male high school graduates report that math was a favorite subject, despite girls taking tougher STEM related coursework.
More than 80% of the STEM workforce is white or Asian and male. This doesn’t come as a surprise when you look at access to science and mathematics education. 42% of Native American and 32% of black students don’t have calculus in their high schools. 34% of Native American and 23% of black students don’t have physics in their high schools.
These numbers become even more staggering when you look at the overall poverty rates of schools. Only 26% of the highest poverty schools have computer science courses. Only 43% have physics classes. When you recall that STEM jobs require lesser (or no) degrees for more money than their non-STEM counterparts, it seems like common sense that we should especially encouraging these students to get engaged in STEM.
Scientific literacy skills extend beyond science.
Many STEM skills are actually just good “life skills”. Things like critical thinking, problem solving, evaluating evidence, and good citizenship are all useful outside of a classroom or laboratory. And despite what I muttered under my breath in high school algebra, I actually do find myself using equations and solving for x in every day life.
STEM-focused learning encourages a deeper understanding of subjects. Let’s use a culinary example and say you’re watch a cooking show. You might pick up some useful tidbits, but probably couldn’t recreate the recipe from memory. If you were hands-on in the kitchen with the chef, you would have a much stronger chance or recreating the recipe again, but also of understanding the cooking methods to create your own recipes.
Hands-on STEM is just like that. It unlocks new skill sets, instead of just memorized information. Those skills are now theirs to use and apply to any subject or situation they want.
Kids want to learn.
More importantly than any of this, kids want to learn – and they want to learn about science! 81% of teenagers think science is interesting, but only 37% like their science coursework. Personally, I think there’s probably a pretty strong correlation between the lack of hands-on learning opportunities and enjoyment of the coursework. Kids crave new information, but they want it delivered in a meaningful way.
Even with the uphill struggle in the classroom, 50% of male and 43% of female high school seniors still report that math is their favorite subject. 48% of male and 34% of female high school seniors report that science is their favorite subject. While those numbers aren’t as staggering as I’d like, that’s still a lot of kids with a passion for STEM education!
How to Raise Scientifically Literate Kids
Are you convinced about the importance of scientific literacy? I hope so. Here are my suggestions for bringing STEM to life at home.
Read. Read. Read. (And Watch. Watch. Watch.)
There are limitless benefits of reading and literacy in general. We’ve all heard the cliche about reading opening doors to new worlds, but more importantly, reading opens doors to understanding our own world. Science also opens doors to understanding our own world in profound ways.
Encourage your kids to read to themselves. Read to your kids. Not because you have to, but because it’s exciting. Instill the wonder and amazement of reading in them from a young age. Don’t wait until it’s a big cloud of required reading and test stress and vocabulary words. Teach them to love not only the experience of reading a book, but to also love the power that reading can unlock. What other skill can unlock unlimited knowledge?
Read nonfiction. Read about space, dinosaurs, animals, history, human beings, volcanoes, weather, read it all. Read about famous scientists, explorers, astronauts, archaeologists, chemists, doctors. But also read fiction, not just science fiction. Engage their imaginations in worlds outside of their own. Books foster creativity and creativity gives way to exploration and experimentation and then it all comes back to… science.
Turn on shows and movies that engage their brains in those same concepts too. Watch them together and talk about them. Ask them questions and answer their questions. Expose them to documentaries and famous scientists on television.
Create an environment of science.
Science is literally everywhere. Point it out. Make it a habit to look for the science in the daily minutiae. When it starts to rain, explain the water cycle. When they’re picking up rocks, talk about geology. When they’re playing with dinosaurs, tell them their names and explain that the plastic could actually be made of dinosaurs. When they’re dancing, explain the kinetic energy that’s propelling them.
Gift them a microscope, telescope, binoculars, chemistry set, or even building blocks for the next holiday or birthday. Hang a model solar system in their room, or even a map of the world or the stars. Even passive exposure like robot bedsheets or animal play sets can unlock their curiosity.
Consider building a scientist’s kit, full of common household materials, so they’re ready to experiment at a moment’s notice. Or buy pre-made science kits, like robot sets, circuits, or even candy making. Include them in your gardening and yard work, car or house maintenance, and computer work.
Use real words with them. Expand their vocabularies. Help them with their homework, science and otherwise. Less than 50% of parents sit down to help their kids with homework 3 or more times per week. Use this time to connect with them and figure out what they’re learning, so you can reinforce it at home.
Talk to them about the big stuff too. Don’t assume that a concept is too heavy or too abstract for them to grasp. My children’s comprehension levels take my breath away on a daily basis. Make sure yours are too.
Encourage questions (and research).
All the toddler moms are currently saying to themselves, “I’ve got this covered”. But seriously, questioning is the core of science. Every great scientific discovery and innovation started with a question. And not even necessarily a “good” question. A lot of science is built on what were or seemed to be preposterous ideas. A lot of science is the result of spectacularly failed experiments.
Model questions for them. Ask them leading questions, open ended questions, silly questions, easy questions. Just ask and let them construct responses with their own brain power. Ask them to describe or compare objects. Ask them to summarize something. Ask them anything.
And let them ask questions too. Model the Scientific Method for them. Teach them how to find answers to their questions, including but also outside of a Google search. If they’re curious why something works a certain way, don’t just tell them. Help them construct a hypothesis and look for data to confirm or disprove it. This will also help them learn how to shift their views when confronted with new information. Pull out videos or books or set up an experiment to turn their question’s answer into meaningful knowledge and learning.
Expand the horizon.
There’s this gigantic world, expansive universe, and limitless knowledge out there. Engage them in that. Show them that they’re citizens not only of their house or town or country, but citizens of the world, of the universe.
Take them to museums and science centers. Go to the zoo or aquarium. Make road trip stops at educational destinations. Sign them up for activities that will foster curiosity. Expose them to as much as you can. My family lives in Louisiana, a state that’s at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to education, opportunity, and pretty much everything else. Even still, we’ve found two children’s museums, two science centers, state parks, nature centers, NASA, LIGO, planetariums, a marine biology center, zoo, aquarium, insectarium, science camps and clubs, and more, all within a couple of hours of home. Don’t be fooled into thinking your city or state doesn’t have science to offer. Go look!
More than that, let them experience all kinds of new things. Again, science is everywhere, whether you’re looking for it or not. Art, history, cooking, sports, roller coasters, race cars. Expose them to the world and the science hiding in every corner.
Let them experiment.
Experiments don’t have to happen in a lab. They can happen in the kitchen, backyard, or at the dining room table. Take a step back and let them explore things. Build a tower, mix a solution, take something apart, or even bake cookies. Like Dr. Tyson said in the video above, any life experience can be an experiment and opportunity to learn.
Play in the backyard. Go explore your neighborhood pond or community green space. Look up at the stars. Dig through your pantry. They all hold unlimited potential for scientific inquiry. And most importantly, let them use their imaginations. Imagining is experimenting.