The parenting of science20 October, 2014 / Articles
Much has been made of the looming STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) crisis in the US — the US is losing its lead in science education, we aren’t producing enough engineers to meet the demand for technical jobs, China is producing almost twice as many degreed engineers. But what about the local STEM crisis? Not in Miami or Los Angeles, but closer — the STEM crisis in our homes.
Our children are inherently curious about what is going on around them. Look no further than the car trip where a child will literally ask questions the entire time — Why is the sky blue? Why is the moon still out during the day? How do they build a road? What is a silo? (The latter is personal experience, from a number of car trips playing “Auto Bingo.”) As parents we do our best to encourage curiosity but when it comes to science, our resolution is usually a trip to Wikipedia and an overly complicated answer that pacifies but does not resolve the question. The result is a missed opportunity to further that curiosity and create a lifelong love of science (or STEM).
Pair that problem with possibly the greatest educational tool invented in the last 50 years: the tablet. Whether it’s iOS or Android, there is no denying that the tablet represents an amazing opportunity to communicate knowledge to our children. Their ability to navigate through a tablet from even the youngest age is nothing short of incredible (though also a little terrifying — have a look at “A Magazine is a Broken iPad” to learn about the burgeoning obsolescence of print media for the next generation). As parents gingerly balance their parenting needs with their work requirements, “screen time” has emerged as a guilt-ridden pacifier. Few parents feel good about their choice to sit their child in front of a screen — whether it is a tablet or a TV — especially when they know the app of choice is probably going to be particularly mindless.
There is a wealth of educational content for older children but younger children are often confronted with virtual cake pop builders and princess games. One could argue that tablets are a curse but maybe there is another way to look at them. As children of the 80s, technology was “the end” for us but for the current generation of children, it is the means to an end. In this case, that end could be a passion for science and engineering. It could be a stretch; there is no guarantee that a 3-year-old who loves science will be a molecular biologist when she grows up. However, laying the foundation for a love of education leaves that door open.
But tablets alone aren’t enough. How does one accomplish getting children excited about STEM topics? When the Toy Industry Association reports that only 20% of annual toy sales for the last two years have been around educational toys, one has to wonder what’s missing.