People can’t seem to talk about education any more without using four letters: S-T-E-M. STEM sounds much more exciting than when we used to call it simply “science,” “math” or “computer class.” And STEM topics are now being touted not just as school subjects for aspiring techies, but as life skills vital for all kids.
“At its essence, science is a way for human beings to understand the world,” says Ben Dickow, president and executive director of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a hands-on learning center located in Downey, where the Apollo and Space Shuttle spacecraft were designed and built.
The Space Center features the types of STEM attractions designed to draw kids into the world of scientific study. There is a LEGO Mindstorm robotics lab, exhibits that let kids launch paper airplanes and rockets, and the Challenger Learning Center, which is an interactive space mission simulator where kids solve real-life problems using math, science and technology.
Skills for Life
The Next Generation Science Standards adopted by the State Board of Education in 2013 are also making a big difference in the way science is taught in schools, promoting hands-on learning and broadening the appeal of science learning for all. “Having great new standards is not just about preparing people for science and technological career paths,” says Ron Rohovit, vice president of education at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. “We want everyone to have an understanding of how the scientific process works.” The Science Center even runs its own magnet school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
One specific area of STEM learning that’s getting a lot of buzz is computer coding, which Chris Bradfield, founder of Kids Can Code, says changes kids from technology consumers to technology creators. Bradfield, the father of an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old, says that most children start using apps at an early age, “but that’s a far cry from understanding how that stuff works under the hood.”
Kids Can Code (www.kidscancode.org) offers after-school classes throughout the L.A. area where middle-school-age kids learn what Bradfield calls “real-world” programming using the python programming language, which he says is the top language used in scientific computing, but also easy for beginners. “Writing computer programs, at its core, is about problem solving,” Bradfield says. “That’s a skill that can apply in all sorts of aspects of life.” Programmers break complex problems down into many very simple steps, which is the same type of thing a lawyer, for instance, would do when writing a contract.
This type of complex thinking is what Scott Mueller, founder and CEO of UCode, had in mind when he started teaching his son coding. “I wanted him to just exercise his mind,” Mueller says. “I wanted him to think deeply in many different ways.” Today, Mueller’s son is 9 and he has a daughter who is 7, and UCode (www.ucode.com) – with campuses in Hermosa Beach, Torrance, Beverly Hills and La Cañada-Flintridge – offers software programming camps and classes where kids in kindergarten through high school learn to create apps, websites, games and robotics. But don’t call it “fun.”
“We’re really about teaching kids how to solve very difficult problems,” says Mueller, who prefers the term “engaging.” “We teach kids how to write software, and we take that pretty seriously,” he adds. “We teach kids how to think.”
Engaging All Learners
The rise of STEM education has coincided with a shift to a more hands-on, experiential way of approaching these subjects. And that is more likely to engage even kids not naturally drawn to science and technology. “Science centers and museums have been promoting this way of learning for decades,” says Rohovit.
California Science Center reaches out with interactive exhibits, camps and activities for school groups. Rohovit says that just coming to the Science Center and places like it is an important step, because kids’ lifelong learning habits are established young. “Through these types of activities, students learn a love for learning,” he explains. With a life-science background, Rohovit’s favorite exhibit is the Ecosystems exhibit, which includes a 188,000-gallon kelp forest and touch tanks with interpreters. Another big draw is in the center’s Samuel Oschin Pavilion. “You’re going to see this big, white building and you’re going to know that there’s a space shuttle in there, and it’s going to be hard not to go in,” says Rohovit.
The SKETCH Foundation Gallery in the Science Court outside the pavilion showcases the whole history of the space program, which Rohovit says represents decades of STEM learning. And the Science Center is opening its Journey to Space exhibition and 3D film Oct. 29, and hosting a space festival Oct. 30-Nov. 1 in conjunction with NASA and local air and space companies.
The Columbia Memorial Space Center, meanwhile, is reaching out to try to build more appreciation for how STEM is relevant to people’s lives. Dickow, who has been in his position at the five-year-old institution for about a year, is dedicated to igniting a “community of creative and critical thinking.” The center hosts a “Monthly Explorers” program for ages 3-5, and an ongoing weekly “Sunday Science” program that kicks off a new topic every month. Three-day aerospace and robotics mini-camps are planned for winter break.
The Space Center will host its annual Spooky Science Night from 5-9 p.m. Oct. 23 and 24, adding a make-your-own-slime activity, costumes and a spooky maze to the usual exhibits and activities. But Dickow says there are also plans to take the show on the road, bringing STEM experiences to community events and locations around Southern California. “We try to make STEM as much of a lightning rod for the community to come together as a summer concert,” he says.
The Space Center also has workshops for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and Bradfield says he does lots of volunteer Kids Can Code workshops with Girl Scouts as well. “The tech industry is still one of the most gender-imbalanced fields out there,” he points out, adding that while women are half the workforce and use half the technology, “they’re not represented among the people who are making it.” Bradfield advises parents not to assume their daughters don’t want to learn coding just because they don’t play games – though plenty of girls do play. Sometimes, girls who aren’t gamers still love learning computer animation, or how to create apps.
Mueller says that, in his experience with UCode, usually even kids who aren’t very interested at the outset enjoy gaining these skills once they get going. “It is extremely rare for kids not to eventually get really into it,” he says. Of their very first class of about 15 children, they had two who cried in the beginning. “They turned out amazing,” says Mueller, adding that one is even still with them 3 ½ years later.
How to Bring STEM Home
Don’t feel on firm footing in STEM territory yourself? There are still lots of ways that you can support your child’s learning. “Look at it as a learning experience for you as a parent,” suggests Dickow. Ask your child to teach you what they are learning.
There are also ways to bolster your child’s enthusiasm.
Make sure your kids learn to type. Bradfield recalls one 12-year-old boy whose typing skills speeded up his coding work and put him way ahead of his peers. The boy told him, “I guess I’m gonna have to thank my dad for making me learn the typing.” Aside from the advantage with coding and computers, Bradfield points out that even standardized school testing is now being done online, and that students have to type responses to essay questions. Mastering typing means they can spend time answering test questions rather than hunting and pecking at the keyboard. He recommends Typing.com, which he used with his kids. It tracks students’ progress and lets them earn badges for skills mastered.
Consider learning to code. Mueller says that parents who don’t know anything about coding have a difficult time appreciating their child’s newfound skills and progress. “It’s worth your time learning how to code as well,” he says. “You can immediately appreciate what your kids are going through.” Online resources he suggests include Code School (www.codeschool.com), Code Academy (www.codeacademy.com) and treehouse (www.teamtreehouse.com). Bradfield says that MIT and Stanford make all of their undergraduate computer science coursework available free online for the truly determined. But he recommends parents have a goal – such as building a game or an app – in mind, to help focus their learning.
Seek out STEM experiences. “The beauty of L.A. is that there are just tons of these out-of-school science learning opportunities out there,” Dickow says. Ask at your child’s school, or do an online search. At the LEGO Mindstorm Robotics Lab at Columbia Memorial Space Center, parents can come in with their kids and – assisted by staff members – get a great overview of basic programming and robotics. The California Science Center, meanwhile, has lots of information about its exhibits available free online. Doing a little checking before your visit will help your family make the most of the experience by guiding you to the demonstrations and experiences your child will enjoy most. And don’t hesitate to chat with staff members at the places you visit. One nice thing Dickow points out about science enthusiasts: “They generally want to share their enthusiasm with others.”
Bringing STEM learning and experiences into your child’s life could certainly pave the way for a great – and lucrative – career in technology. But it also opens up a host of other opportunities, and a wider window into the world. Mueller, for one, relishes the possibilities now open to his kids. “I’m very excited,” he says, “to think about the freedom that they’ll have in the future, to do what they really want to do.”
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.