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STEM-ming Interest

Expert has tips for engaging young children in science

An education in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — is at the forefront of teaching as elementary schools nationwide put extra emphasis on these subjects, hoping to spur interest in the sciences at a young age. With several of the fastest growing occupations requiring an understanding of STEM principles, it’s more important than ever.

Is it possible to give your toddler a foundation in STEM thinking, so he or she is ready to embrace these concepts in school? Katherine Williams, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist at University of California, San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital, thinks so.

“Having an early start and piquing an early interest and development in STEM learning can help set children on that trajectory to learning and developing careers in STEM,” she said during an interview with La Jolla Light.

Williams, a La Jolla resident and mother of four, touts the importance of encouraging that thinking through play.

“We know that the younger children learn and are exposed to STEM-based activities, the more likely that they will build skills in those areas as they get older and the more likely they will be to choose to learn more in those areas,” she said. “When it comes to learning, especially at the toddler age, the more time they spend exploring, the more the neurons in the brain are developing.”

But letting the child lead the way as far as which activities to explore is key, she said.

“Parents can start at a very young age because children learn best through play,” Williams explained. “There are so many games, puzzles, pattern recognition games, etc. that stimulate the brain development. But instead of forcing them, find out what your child responds to. If they like Legos, show them how pattern recognition can lead to bigger and better projects. Follow their play and what they are interested in and find a way to bring STEM into what they like.”

A camera-shy Paul Williams, twins Kate and Cole Williams, Katherine Williams and Grant Williams. Courtesy
A camera-shy Paul Williams, twins Kate and Cole Williams, Katherine Williams and Grant Williams. Courtesy

Williams said her 5-year-old daughter loves Disney’s animated film “Frozen,” and so “there is a learning game online for children to learn how to write (computer) code using ‘Frozen.’ So they can make Elsa ice skate or create snowflakes that fall across their screens — all by writing code,” she said.

Have a little Padres fan at home? “Baseball is all about math and statistics,” she said, adding that sports can be a way to make physics interesting for children.

When it comes to technology, Williams said early use and introduction has its advan- tages when used as one avenue of learning.

“Kids are using technology at a younger and younger age and that can be a double- edged sword,” she said. “On one hand, they can use computers better than most older adults. On the other hand, you want to make sure they are not just using computer games or apps, and limiting other areas of learning or exploring, such as art, sports or music.”

Williams said when children have motor skills to work a computer mouse and can understand how to turn on a computer, it might be a sign they are ready to start exploring.

At the La Jolla Riford Library, several activities are regularly offered for young children that encourage STEM learning. Hosted by various science organizations, “Big Science for Little People” offers monthly hands-on science activities for preschool- and kindergarten-age children. The library’s weekly Lego Club invites children to play and build with Legos. In the children’s area, available any time, is a touch-screen computer designed for children with a large keyboard, which youth services librarian Bill Mallory said children “gravitate towards,” as well as a magnet wall and other educational toys.

Equal access

Williams said there is no scientific data to suggest that boys and girls respond differently to STEM activities when they are really young. “What typically happens is more of a social development where parents and teachers bring STEM-oriented activities, like coding or Legos, to boys instead of girls, so that’s where you might see a difference forming,” she said. “It’s a societal difference not a biological difference.”

A silent partner

Nationwide, Williams said, STEM organizations are incorporating art into their programs, whether it has a place in the acronym or not, and is just as important.

“Engineers are creating robots and they have to understand how to draw and represent the robot on paper before they can build one,” she said. “The purpose of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) should not be so much to teach art, but to apply art in real situations. Applied knowledge leads to deeper learning.”

STEM activities for young minds:

thoughtstem.com: Coding workshops and games

code.org: Coding games for kindergarten-fifth grade, and for teachers to bring coding into the classroom

stem-works.com: Games,exercises and activities to encourage STEM interest

girlstart.org: Blog to get girls interested in STEM activities