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If you are a parent, you are probably aware of the biggest craze in education right now: STEM and STEAM. But why is there such a big emphasis on it? The short answer is that many people believe that the future of America’s economic strength is banking on a forthcoming generation of experts in science, technology, engineering, art, and math. The long answer…well, I’ll get to that. I’d like to start with my perspective on these subjects from the stance of a high school educator, mother, and lover of STEAM endeavors. Note: I will use the terms “STEM” and “STEAM” interchangeably throughout this article.

There are so many ideas and activities out there with the label “STEM” or “STEAM” on them. Most of them truly are related to these topics, but only a few resources actually guide parents or educators on the most important aspect of a STEM education: how to think like a scientist or engineer (note: mathematicians are scientists). In the high school classroom, I noticed that students felt most comfortable with memorizing facts and were adverse to any activity that a) required them to come up with their own ideas and/or b) didn’t have a predefined, specific answer. This is a symptom of how our education system is set up and how students and teachers are tested and rewarded (there are many amazing teachers out there, but standardized testing can get in the way of good teaching). It will take our current generation of teenagers years to learn the crucial thinking skills that were not a part of their foundational education.

This is the reason I have developed my class, STEM roots. In this class, my target audience is the most crucial age for building a solid foundation: toddlers and preschoolers. I will focus my efforts on facilitating scientific and engineering thought processes within the children. The activities I prepare and my interactions with the children will help develop the basic skills needed to handle STEM classes once they begin school; inquiry, observation, logic, creativity, and problem-solving. These are life-long skills that they will need beyond the classroom. If we can raise a generation of children who are comfortable with those skills, we will have a nation full of competent and capable citizens. Yes, they will also be well-versed in tech-related careers, but, more importantly, they will be able to create solutions. This is why STEM is such a crucial topic to teach our children.

As a parent, you can encourage these crucial skills at home with some fun activities and a good framework of questions. Here is one activity that is fun, easy, and fascinating.

I found the instructions from a blog called No Time for Flaschcards By Allison McDonald. The link is here.

Before you begin the activity, keep in mind that it is not an experiment in the truest sense. This is OK, just make sure you are asking your child lots of questions along the way. Explain how you are going to set it up and ask what he/she thinks will happen. Here are some sample questions:

“What do you think will happen when we put the ice on top?”

“Why do you think we’re putting hair spray (or some other aerosol) in here?”

“What’s the purpose of having hot water?”

“Will it behave differently if we use different temperatures of water?” Bonus: you could set up a true experiment if you follow through with this question.

As the cloud is forming, continue asking your child questions. If he or she asks you a question, prompt your child to seek the solution him or herself. Be willing to set up multiple jars and change up the conditions e.g. various amounts of hair spray and varying temperatures of water. Finally, have your child link what he or she is seeing with clouds in the sky.

Avoid giving too many answers (or give none if you can hold out) and let your child continue to wonder and be fascinated. The less you teach, the more they can use their brain to make connections. Keep in mind, their line of reasoning may take days (or longer) to develop. Encourage the process!

The most important thing to remember when doing a science activity is that the benefit for the child is not in knowing what’s happening, but in the process of figuring out what’s happening.

Now that you know the framework, here’s the activity:

  1. Gather your materials. You will need a glass jar with a lid (although a snug dish will work), hot water (boiling works even better), an aerosol spray (we used hairspray), and ice cubes. If you have a child capable of handling boiling water a pyrex measuring cup is great to have on hand as well.

  1. Start by boiling the water then pouring it in the jar. We used about 1/3 of a cup.

  2. Quickly spray the hairspray into the jar. The spray gives the water vapor a surface to condense into tiny cloud droplets. Some experiments use a match instead. Both work but boiling water was enough of a risk for one experiment.

  3. Pop the lid on with the ice and watch the cloud form.

  4. When you are ready lift the lid and let the vapor out!

Rebecca is an educator who is passionate about improving teaching methods. She has worked as an engineer, a tutor, and a physics, math, and engineering teacher for high school students. Her daughter is her biggest inspiration in learning how to teach STEM to toddlers. She will be hosting “STEM playdates” at Books and Cookies in Santa Monica on Thursdays at 4 p.m. The class is called STEM roots and is $15 per child.

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