STEM Education Teaches Problem-Solving and Tolerance; Prepares Children for an Innovative Future
A little girl who wants to grow up to be a farmer will use equipment run on artificial intelligence. Her tractor will be self-driving and she’ll keep track of her crops’ planting, growth, harvest and distribution on intuitively coded apps.
A little boy who wants to grow up to be an artist will have an art box that contains more than just brushes and paint. He’ll have a laptop that allows for digital creations — everything from graphic design to video production.
These are both examples of how it is now. We’re moving toward a future that will be more of this, and will also include innovations we are only just imagining. Today’s children have a future where the language of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will be a part of everything they do. Like learning any second language, understanding STEM’S words and concepts early will help these future entrepreneurs and problem solvers succeed in whatever industry they choose.
“Our world is changing continuously and STEM is becoming more essential to every career path,” said Shared Science Co-Founder and Board President Michelle Wells. “Even careers we don’t associate with ‘hi-tech,’ like farming, are influenced by programming and technology. STEM education is essential so that children don’t get left behind and have opportunities and a foundation to succeed.”
STEM for Everyone
Shared Science, the nonprofit that has brought STEM education to Long Beach students since 2009, was founded on the idea that every child should have the opportunity to learn STEM in a fun and creative environment. With low fees and scholarships available, Shared Science keeps its programs accessible: In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 1,300 students participated in Shared Science, including 834 who received scholarships.
Shared Science was founded by Wells and two other women, Trish Tsoiasue and Jennifer Crans, who all, at the time, had 2nd grade students. The women, who came from diverse career backgrounds, agreed that students were not being exposed to enough STEM in school and wanted to change that. It started with LEGO Engineering Kits and activities for the students at their children’s school and grew to afterschool programs at other schools, followed by camps during school breaks. Many of their first students are now in college pursuing STEM-related degrees, Wells said.
STEM for Success
According to a RAND Corporation report, those who utilize technology in the workplace stand to earn 14-27% more than those who don’t, and non-STEM job salaries are about half of those that are STEM related, so this early STEM education and exposure will pay off for students, Wells added.
In addition to building a foundation for future career success, early exposure to STEM helps children overcome both the fear and stigma of subjects often deemed as “hard” or “for nerds” or, often, “for boys,” Wells said. With more children being exposed to STEM, along with positive cultural and societal changes, those fears and stigmas are slowly dissipating, Wells said, noting that female participation in Shared Science has increased to 41%. She also credits leaders who prioritize education and science, as well as social justice movements around diversity, equity and inclusion, for shifts in attitudes toward STEM.
STEM for Learning
One of the least discussed but greatest benefits of STEM education is the underlying lessons about tolerance, Wells said.
“STEM is about problem solving. It’s about realizing there is never just one solution and that it’s ok to fail… In fact, you learn quite a lot from your failures,” she added. “When students acknowledge that there is not only one solution to a problem and they don’t always have to be right, it makes them much more tolerant. They listen to other ideas and let that feed into their final resolution. These are just some of the benefits — of the many — that STEM education offers.”
Each lesson, delivered by gifted and creative teachers and engineers, begins with a problem to be solved, a discussion about the materials that are available to solve it and any challenges standing in the way. Students move through the problem with an engineering approach, using coding, robotics, tinkering, math, science and other technology to build, test and analyze their creation. Teachers then bring the lesson full circle with a discussion on what was learned and observed during the process. “Science on its own is not enough and technology is not enough” Wells added. “It’s much more vibrant if you can combine all those aspects into the learning experience.”
Shared Science offers a variety of sessions and, this summer, will have both in-person and online age-appropriate activities for students to choose from. Activities include Combo Camp Days with LEGO Education and other tools to explore how things work; Rad-Robotics classes that incorporate LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Robots and Software; and FIRST LEGO League Jr. and Robotics Teams, as well as other Beginning Robotics platform classes.
All in-person classes adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols, Wells said. The pandemic, she added, is probably the largest challenge the nonprofit has faced, but it also opened doors to virtual activities that give even more students an opportunity to learn and create.
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