Finding STEM at Your Pencil Tip!

“Can you give me an example of STEM?” I asked my students.

“iPhone! Technology! Lego! Robots!” they proudly answered.

“Why is iPhone an example of STEM?” I then asked.

“Programming! Engineering!” from a few proud voices.

“What does programming mean?” I further asked.

“Internet! Google!” from just one student while the rest remained silent.

I’ve asked more than 30 students from different elementary schools the same question. No one has given an answer that doesn’t involve technology. No one has given an answer that’s not just single words.

Why isn’t bacteria an answer? They can explain what S, T, E, and M stand for but why does technology dominate? They spend lots of time learning math. Why doesn’t math come to their mind?

Technology is an end result of STEM. It is an application of science, engineering, and math. If technology preoccupies our children’s minds, then their STEM exposure has only touched upon using the products of STEM but not really learning the true essence of it.

Our attachment to smart devices and the excessive marketing on programming/robotics camps for children are leading us away from the motivation behind the increasing emphasis on STEM.

A child comes back back from her STEM camp showing off a website she made. It looks so cool, no doubt. But how much STEM was really involved versus the amount time spent on looking for nice looking pictures and a font to plug into templates that software engineers developed?

So What ARE Examples of STEM?

STEM is in EveryTHING. Every, single, THING.

Pick up any object next to you. There’s a ton of STEM to discuss in it. I picked up a pencil. What’s STEM about a pencil?

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Let’s start asking questions about the development of a pencil:

(Here “they” refer to scientists and engineers. The questions are listed in the order of advancement.)

  1. Looking at the pencil, if I dissect it, what are the different parts of a pencil?
  2. How did they decide what materials to use for the lead, wood, and eraser? Is lead really lead? Why doesn’t the wood bend when we write with it? (chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering)
  3. How did they know how big the pencil should be? (math, human anatomy)
  4. How did they make the wood stick to the lead so well? How come my glue never sticks anything well? (chemistry)
  5. How did they make every pencil look the same? I can’t even have the same signature every time. (manufacturing)
  6. How did they figure out how much to sell a pencil for? $1.00 sounds good to me but it needs to be split amongst the manufacturer, the engineers, the retailers, etc. (math, math, math!)
  7. …… What about pencil sharpeners?

The list can go on and on.

Every question here touches upon at least one aspect of STEM. Each question took them – scientists, engineers and mathematics years to research. You can ask a different set of questions for the object you have in your hand. And similarly, your child can also ask a set of questions for the object that she has in her hand.

Not every child needs to become a scientist or engineer. But every child can certainly ask and learn to answer the same questions that they have asked.

Now which one makes more sense for your child? Spend hundreds of dollars to send your kids to technology (robotics/programming/etc.) camps to use things that they develop, OR spend quality time with your kids learning how they invented things? Either one can be a good fit depending on the child’s readiness. The prior is easy to do (as long as you sign up) while the latter takes time to re-wire a child’s brain. Before committing to a STEM activity, have a discussion with your child “what’s STEM about it?”

STEM is a Way of Thinking

STEM is all about computational thinking. It is a logical process from identifying a problem, taking the problem apart into manageable pieces, analyzing them, coming up with possible solutions, to trying out the solutions.

Computational thinking is a set of skills. Just like picking up a new language, it doesn’t happen after taking a course. Just like learning to be kind to others, STEM stems from home – the parent(s). Even though STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, it is the way of thinking behind all these fields that make them powerful.

Looking back at the questions about the pencil, they integrate into one big problem to solve – how to make a pencil. So how can we coach our children to break down a problem into manageable items logically?

In future posts, I will share actionable exercises for developing computational thinking that make sense throughout the school year.

Explore at Home: Every day pick an object around you, have your child ask questions starting with “how did they” (refer to the list of questions for a pencil) and have a discussion. You might need to initiate discussions to show some examples first. We’re not aiming to get the right answers. For now we’re just aiming to get STEM curiosity going at home.

I’d love to hear what objects you’re discussing at home and how the discussion goes. Please share your experience below!

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