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What Is All This STEM Stuff?

Carol Rinke | Jul 20, 2015

double helix

Jul 20, 2015

These days, you can’t turn around without hearing something about STEM. Schools are adding STEM courses and STEM summer camps are popping up across the country. A well-publicized public-private partnership aims to develop 100,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade. But what is all this STEM stuff anyway? Technically, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM programs typically blend together at least two of these subject areas. However, STEM is much more than the sum of its individual parts.

STEM is also about helping children develop the technical, creative, and critical thinking skills they need to be part of an innovative future. Two of these skills in particular have been termed new literacies. These are vital for future communication just like reading and writing.

  • Design thinking is when children use their knowledge to create objects that solve everyday problems in our world. An example might be when children design a tool to simplify the task of weeding the family garden.

  • Computational thinking follows the same reasoning: children break down larger problems into component parts and then use computers as tools to solve those problems. At a basic level, computational thinking might involve children guiding each other blindfolded through a maze. On a more sophisticated level, they use computer commands to guide a digital character through the maze.

STEM and its core skills-- design thinking and computational thinking-- don’t require a formal classroom setting. They can often be encouraged at home by approaching the world as a puzzle to be solved. Below are some specific suggestions for ways you can foster a STEM-literate home and have some fun together as a family:

Warm Up to Problem Solving

One of the best ways to get people of all ages involved in creative problem solving is through the Marshmallow Challenge. Tackled by people around the world, from kindergarteners to business executives, the Marshmallow Challenge gives you 18 minutes to construct the tallest freestanding structure using only 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, 1 yard of masking tape, 1 yard of string, and 1 marshmallow. The materials may be broken into smaller parts, but the marshmallow must be on top. The secret that makes it so educational is that while marshmallows appear light and fluffy, they are actually quite dense. Many structures will fall over when the marshmallow is placed on top. This gives you a wonderful opportunity to talk with your children about problem solving, prototyping, and design.

Try Your Hand at Engineering

Engineering often seems like an intimidating field, but helping children develop the foundational skills for engineering can be a lot of fun. If there are any broken items in your home, whether it’s a toaster, a remote control or an unused gaming console, let your children take the items apart to see what is inside. This exploration can help them develop their curiosity about physical objects.

Explore Buoyancy

Another concept to explore at home is buoyancy, the physics concept that explains why objects float on water. As a family, have a tinfoil boat competition. In this challenge, you design and build a boat from a 6-inch square of tinfoil. Float the boats in a container of water or even the bathtub and compete to see which boat can hold the largest number of pennies before sinking. Children can test and refine their designs by changing one feature of the boat at a time. Check out PBS Kids for additional engineering activities that are great to do with the entire family.

Learn to Code

The beginnings of computational thinking can be found easily with Anna and Elsa from the movie Frozen. is a non-profit organization that focuses on building basic computer science skills starting with children as young as age 4. Their website offers a number of free online tutorials, with the characters from Frozen, Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies. Each activity introduces children to the foundations of coding in a welcoming environment. Children can earn certificates for completing various levels and can continue on to more advanced coding if their time and interest allow. There are even basic exercises that don’t require a computer.

Turn STEM into STEAM

Take your STEM household to the next level by adding “A” for Art, changing STEM into STEAM. One STEAM project involves attaching lightbulbs to your artwork to add a scientific dimension to the creative process: red glowing eyes on a dragon or lava bubbling from the top of a volcano. This STEAM combination can be easily crafted with inexpensive LEDs and 3V coin-cell batteries. A number of STEAM-focused activities can be found on the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio website.

Wherever your STEM journey leads, it is sure to get you and your children thinking in new and innovative ways.

About the Author

Carol Rinke
Marist College