Connecting Families and STEM Learning
By Dr. Jacie Maslyk
My sons and I recently visited the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. It is truly a place of discovery for learners of any age. Their exhibits are inviting for all members of the family and open-ended for the curious learners, like my sons. The museum offers spaces for tinkering, art, building, and play. My kids and I love messing around with materials and exploring at the museum. We played with circuit blocks and learned about open and closed circuits. We talked about light and color in the art studio. We learned about physics in the “garage” space where we dropped parachutes and created a ramp for toy cars.
There were lots of parents and families at the museum—some engaging directly with their children and others sitting back and observing the inquiry and joy in their kids. The informal STEM learning here made me wonder about the ways we can bring this into our schools. Not only this type of open-ended learning but also the way that we invite parents and families into the learning process.
Schools and organizations are expanding beyond traditional science fairs and creating experiences that can showcase student learning but also offer opportunities for families to learn and grow in STEM. Whether you call it “family engagement night” or title it the “STEM Engineering Expo”, there are ways that schools can design events to connect families with STEM learning.
Consider the Entry Point
Designing opportunities for learners often starts with your knowledge of those individuals. Think about the museum—they can’t possibly plan for all of the levels of knowledge of their patrons. In turn, they proactively create experiences that have multiple entry points. This is the starting point where learners feel ready to access the content. The entry point might be related to their learning style or represent an area of comfortability for them.
At the museum, the circuit blocks provide a comfortable place to engage in learning. Visitors pull up a stool and use wooden blocks to explore ideas around circuitry. The materials are rough so that no one is nervous about breaking anything or “doing it wrong”. It’s exploratory, inquiry-based, with no exact end goal in mind.
Think about the entry point for STEM learning in your school or organization. How do you provide multiple pathways into learning? When you plan family events, are there opportunities that can ease students and families into STEM opportunities. Just as the museum offered low-stakes tinkering for kids and families, schools can do this too. Consider the ways you can design engaging experiences that aren’t intimidating but provide an inviting way to learn the STEM content.
Engaging STEM opportunities to offer families:
- Provide familiar materials that all learners know how to access (Legos, Play-Doh, or K’Nex)
- Include a welcome sign with images or simple directions so that families can engage in the task
- Share a video that can run on a loop demonstrating the STEM activity or showing how it is implemented within the classroom
By incorporating these opportunities, parents and families will be able to readily access the learning and build new knowledge together.
Make it Exploratory
At the museum, there were parents who clearly understood some of the content behind the interactive exhibits. They talked with their children about shadows and reflections explaining why things looked closer or further away. They shared insights with their kids about light, color, and texture in the art studio.
When invitations to create are exploratory, then there’s no right or wrong answer. If a robotics project is on display and it appears to be complicated, this may not be an engaging STEM opportunity for families. Projects that have a clear right answer or predetermined final product may be challenging for some students and their families.
When planning a family STEM event, keep things open-ended so that everyone feels like they can try it out and make it their own. In the museum, a sign is displayed that says “What will you make today?” It doesn’t proclaim that we will all build airplanes or paint flowers. It allows the learner to make decisions and choose their own direction within the space.
While our STEM learning in school can’t always offer a choice or only be exploratory in nature, we can ensure that when our families are invited in to engage in STEM with their children, we have projects and materials that they can explore in simple or complex ways.
Learning through discovery at the museum lead to bright smiles and delightful A-ha moments. Let’s capture that same spirit of STEM learning in our schools and classrooms, remembering that we can teach science, technology, engineering, and math content in ways that are challenging and fun. As we design STEM experiences for students and their families, we should highlight opportunities to demonstrate the joy in learning and the spark that often comes when learners activate their curiosity and discover new things.
About the Author:
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at steam-makers.com.