How to Promote Authentic STEM Learning for Families - Digital Promise

How to Promote Authentic STEM Learning for Families

Schools want to support families around science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects because these domains are engaging and capitalize on how kids naturally want to learn. But many families feel unprepared to support STEM learning.

We spoke with STEM researchers and educators Ximena Dominguez, Kevin McElhaney, and Nick Schiner about the importance of the home-school STEM connection in the context of COVID-19. They described ways that parents are already STEM educators and shared how parents and teachers can be powerful partners in supporting students to keep learning during this time.

What are some barriers to the home-school connection (and how has COVID-19 magnified these barriers)?

Kevin: In normal times, parents sometimes participate physically as volunteers or aides in schools and classrooms—this can’t happen now given COVID-19 school closures. Parent-teacher communication has also been interrupted. Because students are no longer bringing physical artifacts home to show their parents, and school work now tends to live online, schools need to incorporate new ways to loop families in to student learning.

Ximena: Many parents are juggling to balance work while supporting their children as they engage in distance learning. Identifying activities that are already part of families’ routines, and can become natural yet powerful vehicles for rich learning, can be key—both to keep children engaged but also to support parents.

What does authentic STEM learning at home look like? Which skills and competencies do these activities promote? 

Ximena: STEM is embedded in many activities that are already happening at home. For example, cooking or baking as a family provides opportunities to learn about math (e.g., measuring and counting), science (e.g., understanding how heat changes things), and computational thinking (e.g., a recipe provides a series of steps or directions, like an algorithm). Additionally, families of young children often play with blocks or other building materials. These activities involve math (e.g., understanding how to combine shapes), science (e.g., balanced forces and motion via ramps), and engineering (e.g., designing structures and engaging in systematic revisions to achieve specific goals).

Research suggests that parents’ math and science talk can help children develop robust mathematical understanding and scientific thinking. For instance, parents can ask children why they think something will happen, then help them describe their observations and use them as evidence to support arguments about how they know something. And facilitating STEM practices (observing, comparing, predicting, testing, revising, etc.) can help children develop important learning skills.

Kevin: For me, authentic and challenging STEM starts with engagement in disciplinary practices, including defining problems, developing models, conducting investigations, analyzing data, and communicating information. At home, children can engage in these practices as part of everyday problem-solving and discussion. For example, games and puzzles (including video games) involve problem-solving and problem decomposition. Playing puzzle games collaboratively also requires learners to be explicit about their rationales and problem-solving processes. Another great activity is designing something that addresses a specific purpose or need. This can be as simple as designing paper airplanes to go far or hit a target. The reasoning that goes into building something to achieve a particular goal puts STEM practices into play.

Nick: Remote learning can also provide a unique opportunity to break open the constraints of every learner doing the exact same investigation. Using Challenge-Based Learning, learners can engage with the world around them (even if it’s within their homes!), investigate more deeply what they want to understand, and act on their new knowledge with an authentic purpose.

Based on your experience, how can educators help families to feel more confident in their role as STEM teachers and co-learners?

Kevin: Families should feel confident that if their child is creating something, solving a problem, or explaining how a part of the world works, they are engaged in authentic STEM learning.  Also, giving kids as much responsibility over their own learning as possible can help develop their sense of autonomy and ability to work through unexpected challenges.

Nick: Great STEM learning experiences are inquiry-driven, meaning the learning is rooted in asking and pursuing answers to questions. Remember that teachers aren’t experts in all things, but rather experts in education. It is more than okay for families to say to children, “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together!” Great teachers do this all the time.

Finally, how can educators and families support each other at this time?

Ximena: There is evidence that children are most engaged in learning when learning at school capitalizes on children’s funds of knowledge. Distance learning may provide a unique opportunity for teachers to learn more about families’ funds of knowledge. For instance, apps like SeeSaw can increase the communication flow between educators and families. These apps help families share artifacts (videos, photos, audio, etc.), through which teachers can learn about families’ everyday activities at home—what they value and how they engage together. Thoughtful communication like this requires planning; to learn about families’ funds of knowledge, distance learning activities should provide guidance, yet allow flexibility and choice.

Kevin: It is helpful for families to provide teachers with feedback on how the remote learning process is working for their children, so teachers know how to make adjustments that better meet students’ needs. If your child is having a particular difficulty, it’s likely another child is, too. The more a teacher knows about a student’s at-home learning situation, the more personalized support they can provide.

Nick: Everyone is grieving a loss of normalcy and inequities are being magnified during this time. Many people are focused on supporting children’s basic and physiological needs; educators and families are doing everything they can to ensure children are cared and provided for during this time. Keep asking questions, seeking clarifications, and offering assistance, whenever possible.

Learn more about the principles of Powerful Learning, and visit our Online Learning page to access continually updated resources for educators and parents.

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