Friday, January 23, 2015

Start with Observation

I recently read an article called "Rocket Science" on about how to encourage girls to pursue their interests in science, technology, engineering and/or math (STEM). It was filled with great ideas that echo themes that what I have come to think of as "Women in STEM" education movement: girls need role models, support their pursuit of long-term/challenging goals, and "help her be fearless." But among the list of things to do I found some advice that is equally valid for preschool engineers and their parents and caregivers:
"4. Do science-related activities together. Regardless of your expertise in science, math or engineering or technology, participate in fun activities related to them with your kids.
"It's hard to actively encourage your children to pursue study in subjects that can feel overwhelming. But expose your girls to math and science at a young age, and make it fun and cool by doing experiments together. it's okay if you don't know how it will work out, that is what science is about - trial and error, learning from your mistakes, creating a new hypothesis, and doing it again until you succeed. Tell your kids that you are learning, too. Make it fun and very interactive." - Erin.
5. Provide opportunities for her to engage - on her own time. Making sure that girls get time to explore their interests by themselves is equally important - nearly all of the moms remembered spending time alone with science kits, a computer, or during a trip to Space Camp." (

These two pieces of advice represent the paradox that is teaching and learning. I imagine that #4 is especially intimidating for someone who does not feel confident in their own STEM prowess. But I'm here to tell you that doing STEM with your preschooler does not have to be a complicated or intimidating thing. Just start by making an observation. Keeping yourself open to new (to you) discoveries, I think, is enough for getting preschoolers well on their way to be comfortable with STEM. Of course, this is mainly because when a young child makes an observation or is introduced to something new by a loved one, they immediately follow it up with a question. The observation followed by the question is exactly the beginning of the scientific process! 
Pic courtesy Danielle Harlow, PhD., UCSB.
I feel like there is an added benefit for us as aspiring STEMy adults, too. Keeping our heads up and our eyes ahead takes us decidedly away from our smart phones. It helps us to slow down mentally and see the world around us. In these circumstances, my most cherished moments are the times when I allow myself to honestly get excited about seeing something small or interesting - the bud on a tree in the spring, a fantastic ice crystal growing from a tree branch, or an interesting cloud floating in the sky. A mere exclamation, "I see a beautiful flower," or "What an interesting machine!" is enough for me to 1) make a STEM observation, and 2) strive toward gratitude for this amazing world. I believe that those two things are healthy for me, my children, and the planet!

Fantastic crystals found last week in our neighborhood. I was surprised to discover that they were soft. When touched, they crumbled.
The quiet times we take for ourselves to observe are perfect opportunities for our children to get that alone time that, as the authors of the "Rocket Science" article assert, is equally important for developing future STEM lovers. They can walk beside us on trails, at the library, or just around the back yard. Just looking, observing, or day dreaming are wonderful preschool starts to STEM learning.

So keep in mind that STEM learning does not have to include the academic rigor of rocket science. For preschoolers (and grown-ups) it can be as simple as valuing observation.

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