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10 ways to nurture children’s STEM skills this summer

10 ways to nurture children's STEM skills this summer

Here we are, just days into the holidays, a long summer with the family stretching out in front of you. One thought is beginning to weigh heavily on your mind: ‘How on earth am I going to keep my children entertained?’ It’s all very well leaving them to their own devices but it doesn’t take long before the novelty of lie-ins, endless screen time and lack of routine wears off and you hear them utter those dreaded words: ‘I’m bored!’

Keeping children amused in the holidays is a daunting prospect for many parents and keeping the cost down even more so. However, the summer holidays are a golden opportunity for children to explore, learn new skills and put their learning into a real-world context. What’s more, nurturing your child’s natural curiosity and creativity is an excellent way to broaden their horizons and shape their future aspirations.

Recent research by the charity Education and Employers shows that children form their perceptions about careers and jobs at an early age, developing their future ambitions from as young as seven. However, making a connection between primary school lessons and the jobs they might one day pursue is not easy. This research also shows that there is a major disconnect between the careers that primary-aged children are most interested in and those that the economy needs.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related industries are some of the fastest growing and demand for skilled workers is only set to grow. From robotics to caring for our environment, space exploration to the digital revolution, these disciplines have an impact that can already be seen in every aspect of our lives. Preparation for STEM careers is not just a matter of imparting hard knowledge, but nurturing ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork and problem solving. Fortunately, STEM activities and soft skills go hand-in-hand.

Here are ten quick, easy ways to nurture a love of STEM this summer. They won’t break the bank, and might just prevent those dreaded words… ‘I’m bored!’

Go on a nature walk

Nature walks are a fantastic way to unwind and appreciate the natural world outside. Spend time searching for minibeasts like beetles and ants in different habitats, using a magnifying glass to take a closer look. Alternatively, look for naturally occurring patterns, from the symmetry of a butterfly’s wings to the spirals in a snail’s shell or the tessellation in tree bark. The natural world is full of patterns!

blow some bubbles

Have a go at creating a 2D shape bubble wand by cutting straws into quarters and bending pipe cleaners through them to join the straw segments together. For more of a challenge, create a 3D shape bubble wand. Cubes and pyramid shapes work particularly well for this. Then dip your bubble wand into soapy water, take a good look at your bubble and then blow it away!

Enjoy a local adventure

Take a trip to a local museum or zoo. This is a great way to not only bring learning to life but also to meet experts in different fields. What’s more, many museums run free events and workshops for children throughout the summer holidays. Look up locations near you for more information.

Get puzzling

Play puzzles and games. Activities such as Sudoku and chess are great for developing logical thinking, an important skill in STEM subjects. Construction toys such as Lego help to develop spatial awareness. Anything involving dice is great for developing mathematical skills.

Make a stick raft

Challenge your child to create a raft out of natural materials. Sticks, joined together with twine are perfect for this and a leaf can make an excellent flag. Then test your raft in a bowl of water or stream to see if it floats!

Appreciate the night sky

Try your hand at a spot of stargazing on a clear evening. There are lots of free apps available for download to help you navigate the sky above you. For a closer look at the stars, locate a free star gazing event near you. The ‘Go Stargazing’ website is a great place to start.

Create a junk modelling masterpiece

It’s amazing what can be constructed out of the contents of a recycle bin. Cardboard tubes such as those found on kitchen and toilet roll can be taped to a wall to create a marble run. Vary the angles of the tubes to create different speeds of travel. Another idea could be to create a moving vehicle or boat out of junk modelling materials.

Fix something

Find out how things work. For example, try taking a simple mechanical toy apart and reassembling it again (steering clear of electrical items). As you do so, discuss the function of all the different parts.

Construct a newspaper tower

Challenge your child to create the tallest freestanding tower that they can out of newspaper. Sticky tape works best for joining the structure together. You could make this competitive by setting a timer to see who can build the tallest tower in the allotted time: you or your child?

Set off on a scavenger hunt

Give your child a list of ten things to find in the natural world. Ideas that work well are a list of colours, textures, shapes or smells. They can tick items off the list once found or even take a photo of them as evidence.

 

For each of these activities, you can discuss their relations to different sorts of jobs. For example, a newspaper tower could be connected to the role of a civil engineer or architect; the nature walk to the job of a biologist or forester; the junk modelling to the job of a design engineer. Plan these activities into your summer holidays and perhaps you might just plant some seeds for future ambitions in the process.

For more STEM activities and ideas, order your copy of 15-Minute STEM here.

15-minute STEM

8 ways to teach robotics

 

robotics

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

– Malcolm X

In the fast paced digital world in which we live, barely a week goes by without the release of a new device or app. The children of today have grown up with this digital revolution and rely heavily on technology for entertainment, communication and information. As we look ahead it would be foolish to underestimate the impact that technology, automation and artificial intelligence will have on the future workplace. From driverless cars to robotics, the world is changing fast. The question is:

Are we teaching children the the skills they need to prepare them for the technological advances of the future?

Plus, with school budgets stretched to the limit, how can we provide forward-thinking technology education on a budget? We’ve put together a few ideas linked to the world of robotics…

Bee-Bots

These colourful programmable floor robots are a great way to teach directionality, programming and sequencing and are perfect for the 5-11 age range. A great way to begin is by marking out simple routes for the Bee-Bot to follow. For example, try sticking masking tape onto carpet to create a maze. Once children have got to grips with this, challenge them to devise and program and debug their own more complex routes. Currently retailing for £57.94 here on Amazon.co.uk

Lego Mindstorms

Lego Mindstorms

This educational program helps children to design, program and control robotic creatures, vehicles, machines and inventions. Lego is combined with programmable brick, motors and sensors, so you can make your creations walk, talk, grab, think, shoot and do almost anything you can imagine! These kits are on the pricier side at around £270 here but once purchased can be used again and again.

Lego WeDo

This resource is developed for primary aged children as an introduction to control technology and programming using robotics. The software is clear and intuitive for young children and comes in the form of an app. Click on their website here to find out more and download sample software and curriculum packs for free.

Raspberry Pi

This is a small, affordable computer that you can use for programming. Use it to learn to program with Scratch. You can kit yourself out with a Raspberry Pi here for around £36. Then head to their website to learn how to use this device in the classroom and take advantage of their free online training.

Sphero

These ping pong ball sized robotic balls can be controlled by an app and can even use facial recognition technology to drive the ball. They contain LED lights to allow them to glow many colours. The app is quick and intuitive for children to use. They’ll love navigating their Sphero around mazes and obstacles. Currently retailing for £49.99 here on Amazon.co.uk

Vex Robotics

Each kit comes with step-by-step instructions to build and program your robot. Kits include robotic arms, catapults and zip flyers. Each kits varies in price with the hydraulic robotic arm (pictured) currently retailing for £33.49 here on Amazon.co.uk

Scratch

Scratch allows the user to program their own interactive stories, games and animations. These programming skills are likely to come in hand in the future as the ‘language of robotics’. What’s more, you can connect and program hardware such as Raspberry Pi and Lego Mindstorms through Scratch. If you’re not already familiar with this fab free software then click here to find out.

nasa robotics

Nasa Robotics

The Nasa Robotics website is full of fantastic free resources for educators and children. This includes lesson plans and examples of how robots such as the Mars Exploration Rover have been used in space. Check it out here.

 Have you used a good robotics resource that we haven’t included? If so then comment below.

Teaching Soft Skills Through STEM

teaching soft skills through stem education

The Prince’s Trust recently surveyed teachers, parents and pupils to ask them about the place of soft skills in education. Their Results for Life report (see here) was published in September, and found that:

  • 43% of young people don’t feel prepared to enter the workforce, with 43% of those who feel this way believing their soft skills are not good enough
  • More than a quarter of teachers (27%) think that their students don’t yet have all the soft skills required to do well after school
  • 72% of workers felt they didn’t have all the soft skills to do well in their role when they started working

These findings are nothing new. For years we’ve seen reports telling us how employers value soft skills over technical knowledge in graduates and how soft skills are the main deficit in new graduates’ capabilities.

So what are soft skills and why are they so important?

Hard skills are the teachable abilities that we measure in schools such as reading, writing and mathematics. By contrast, soft skills are harder to quantify and tend to be self-developed. Examples are communication, teamwork, time management, resilience and problem solving. The Results For Life report concludes that such skills are considered to be as important to achieving success in life as good grades, by young people, teachers and workers alike. Whilst hard skills are indispensable, it is soft skills that help candidates stand out from the crowd and succeed in both the workplace and in life. Some employers claim to value them even more than professional experience. These soft skills often carry greater weight when applying for positions of leadership; I’m sure we can all think of a person in a position of leadership who has achieved this more for their exceptional soft skills than their technical abilities.

What can schools do to develop soft skills?

In his foreword to the ‘I CAN’ ‘Skills for Work, Skills for Life’ report (see here) Bob Reitemeier wrote that

despite recent attention from business and education sectors recognising the role soft skills play in work-readiness, the skills gap continues – with young people being overlooked because they lack this core skill set’.

With an education system focused on quantifiable academic success it’s no surprise that soft skills are pushed aside. Young people in the UK are under great pressure to succeed in exams, and spend an increasing amount of time working independently, often with a fear of criticism and failure. As a result, development of soft skills like team working and spoken communication can take a back seat; yet such associated qualities such as humility and self-confidence can improve the overall academic performance that we care so much about. It’s clearly time for schools to integrate the development of soft skills into the curriculum. One way of doing this is through science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Boosting soft skills through STEM Education

STEM-related careers are one of the fastest growing areas of employment and STEM graduates are in a position to earn some of the highest starting salaries. Soft skills are increasingly required in these industries, in particular communication, teamwork, self-organisation and critical thinking. Done well, STEM activities can also be a way of developing soft skills.

Take a recent primary school STEM project. The year six children arrived at school to a crime scene: their school trophy had been stolen and the culprit had left a trail of destruction in their wake. Over the course of the week, the children collaborated together to solve the crime, classifying fingerprints, predicting the height of the criminal from their footprints, using paper chromatography to analyse written evidence and building up a profile of the criminal. They were visited by a policeman and a forensic scientist, found out about their roles in solving crimes, and ended the week by interviewing the suspects and successfully identifying the culprit.

The example above uses an interdisciplinary, project-based learning approach to teaching, based on solving real-world problems. It ticks a lot of boxes in terms of developing the soft skills our young people need. As with many STEM activities, it also involves a certain level of trial and error. However, these setbacks also teach important soft skills, helping children to develop the resilience and perseverance needed in life. One criticism from employees against our education system is that graduates are not adept at problem-solving, expecting to be told what to do rather than figuring it out themselves. STEM education is one way to combat this. When participating in STEM projects, children must learn to work in a team, listen to each other and communicate their ideas to others.

Young people recognise they need better soft skills, employers expect them, and teachers want to deliver them: better STEM education has been on the agenda for a long time, and by focusing on a real-world, problem-based approach, we can get enhanced soft skills into the bargain too.

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