Q: Our school district is offering a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) summer camp for students. I didn't enroll our kids due to the camp schedule. What are they missing? Can we do STEM activities at home?
A: Are you ready to unleash your imagination, embrace trial-and-error problem solving and tolerate the wonderful mess of making stuff? Then set up a STEM camp at home, says Nancy Bourne, a STEM resource teacher in the Palm Beach County (Florida) School District.
"The STEM movement is all about encouraging kids to see these subjects as fun tools that help them make sense of the world," she says. "Kids are extraordinary thinkers and doers. Good STEM activities encourage kids to think, ask 'what if,' use their creativity and enjoy learning.
"STEM projects should be about delight and discovery. You want kids to develop a positive mindset about these subjects that will carry thoughout their lives."
Let these rules guide kids, Bourne advises:
-- Dream big. Ask questions. Take notes. Write down what you want to know more about.
-- Try new things. "Remember, failure is OK!" she urges. "I tell kids that FAIL stands for 'First Attempt In Learning.' You want them to venture their ideas."
-- Be open to what is around you. Observe carefully. "Wonder how to fly? Look at a bird. That is what the Wright brothers did and they invented the airplane," says Bourne.
She further suggests organizing three types of STEM activities:
-- Make and do. Plenty of websites support the "maker movement," an initiative to stimulate kids' imaginations with more hands-on activities.
"Find a space at home to invent, construct and get messy," Bourne advises. One of her favorite sites is Design Squad Nation at pbskids.org: "The directions are good. In no time, kids start creating their own engineered fun."
Other sites she likes that you might want to browse for more resources include edutopia.org, drawastickman.com, abcya.com/animate.htm and makesomething365.blogspot.com.
-- Explore STEM resources nearby. Check out free and inexpensive offerings at science centers, parks, children's museums and the like. Go geocaching and search for hidden caches using GPS. Try a variation called EarthCaching, where kids learn about unique geologic features. (For more information, go to schoolfamily.com and search "geocaching.")
-- Read for knowledge and inspiration. "Kids build knowledge in STEM subjects by reading a lot," says Bourne. "There are many excellent nonfiction books in STEM areas that librarians can help you locate."
In addition, the Children's Book Council lists the best science titles at cbcbooks.org. Go to ReadingRockets.org to check out science and math titles and author videos. Kids are encouraged to read such nonfiction magazines as Wired, Popular Science, National Geographic, Time For Kids, SuperScience and DynaMath.
Biographies can also inspire kids to make their mark on the world, says Bourne. There are many excellent series featuring innovators from Albert Einstein to Sally Ride to Steve Jobs. Share videos and TV programs, too.
"Kids need to see people exploring this great globe, solving problems and making new things," she says.
She also suggests watching TED Talks that are appropriate for kids (ted.com). There, Bourne says you can listen to a 2006 talk by English writer Ken Robinson. He calls creativity "as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status."
Make that your STEM camp theme.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)