Jump Aboard the STEM Train

Jump Aboard the STEM Train

Yvonne Walus explains how children can learn (and love) critical thinking.

Clued-up Kiwi parents know that STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) are important, because they teach critical thinking, encourage problem solving and foster innovations. But unless your child loves robotics and considers learning maths a better reward than eating chocolate cake, telling them that these skills are “increasingly important in the workforce” is not going to magically make them keen on chemistry or computers.

Of course, some young people are simply not compatible with scientifi c subjects, and that’s okay too. You as a parent can help teachers discover whether your child enjoys STEM challenges, or whether their love of learning could be better channeled elsewhere.


Some children have a natural curiosity for numbers, patterns, nature, mixing stuff together to make it go fi zz. Others need a little guidance to spike their curiosity. The three golden rules of engaging children in STEM subjects are:

1. Make the activities as practical as possible. Think hands-on (something children can do themselves, not just watch an adult perform), think useful (how can we bake a cake if we don’t have eggs?), think of real-life questions (should you transport your ice cream in a thermos or in an open bowl, and why?).

2. Show that STEM activities can be as fascinating as a video game. How? By making them challenging (for example, who can build the tallest tower made of wooden blocks?) and spectacular (explode a volcano with baking soda and vinegar, cause ice to emit smoke, mix two clear liquids to get a black liquid).

3. The main objective is to have fun. It’s not important to end up with an edible cake, a bridge made out of lollipop sticks, or a Lego replica of Death Star – the important bit is that the children develop a love of experimenting, failing, learning, creating and questioning.


If all that sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. Fortunately, you’re not alone. Your school will be doing its best to engage the kids in STEM education. There are also outside-of-school organisations that work with teachers and students to run STEM projects and competitions. Speak to the school’s leadership team about opportunities such as the Wonder Project, BP challenges, and EPRO8.

I’m a parent whose kids participate in the EPRO8 competition every year (lockdowns permitting). Each team is given a work station of what most people describe as “shiny small stuff ” (tools, gears, pulleys, joiners, nuts, bolts, wheels, aluminium framing, motors and electronic equipment). The objective is to solve as many problems as possible by creating large-scale structures and machines. One challenge may be to construct a bridge that can take a certain weight, but can fall apart when you press an electronic button. Another challenge may be to create a robotic dog that can wag its tail, and sit and then stand up again.

There’s more to the challenges than just engineering, robotics, maths, logics, physics and maths – there’s also thinking outside the square as my daughter discovered when their robot was judged not canine enough.

“How do I know this is a dog?” the EPRO8 adjudicator asked. “It has teeth,” my daughter pointed to the bolts in the robot’s mouth. “And a tail. And four legs.” “Still not a dog,” the adjudicator replied. So the team added a collar and leash made out of a pulley, and they inserted a metal model of a bone into the robot’s mouth. That got them the points they needed.

Sometimes, though, innovation under pressure didn’t pay off . “To make the bridge explode, pull this string,” my son explained. The string was strategically tied to unstable pieces that collapsed the bridge when tugged by the string. “No, I need to push a button,” the adjudicator replied. My son is a quick thinker. “Sure thing,” he said. “Push this button over there,” he pointed to an electronic button not connected to anything, “then pull the string and the bridge will fall apart.” That earned him a laugh – alas, no points.

Fun STEM activities for pre-schoolers

One of the most important skills a young scientist should develop is observing the world. When out walking, ask your kids to find something green, something wet, something round. During bath time, discuss which toys sink and which toys fl oat – will the empty cup that’s floating right now sink if we fill it with water? Try building a tower with blocks of different sizes: is it easier to put bigger blocks at the bottom or on top? Look for patterns in the world around you: repeating numbers on a letter box or car plate, petals on flowers, spirals in seashells.

Fun STEM activities for primary school children

Play “I Spy” or “20 Questions.” Select age-appropriate videos or clips about how the world works. Watch them together, and watch them actively – before you begin, explain what concepts you’ll see, what the children might like to pay special attention to, and what STEM area they cover (biology, chemistry, robotics). Afterwards, discuss what you and they have observed. Turning on subtitles may help older kids internalise what is being said. Build with Lego – either by following the blueprint in the box or by setting up missions to create new things. It is an excellent way to encourage future engineers. Make muffi ns and help your child measure the ingredients. What if you double or halve the recipe? Take them to the local museum and ask them to point out all the STEM exhibits. When visiting parks, nature trails, botanical gardens, or the zoo talk about how plants grow, why birds make nests or what giraffes eat.

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