Friday, September 14, 2012

What encouraging STEM to children looks like in everyday clothes

I’ve already said that STEM screwed up when it left off the C (communication) from its list of important foci. Without communication, science, technology, engineering, and math are nothing.

I now believe a second area is missing, but it goes along with communication: ethics. STEM education is powerful. One of the first kitchen-table science lesson teaches kids to mix vinegar and baking soda to shoot toy rockets into the sky. Isn’t that one step away from causing other kinds of explosions? So how do we grow a generation of young scientists and engineers without helping them learn to use their knowledge for good?

According to the package:
3...2...1...BLAST OFF!

This summer, I traveled with my children a lot and I thought I’d really miss the day the bus came to haul my oldest to fourth grade.

Then we had August. Toward the end, our conversations went a lot like this:
9-year-old Son: How do hackers learn to hack? Is there a book? Can we get it. Today? Do. Not. Order. It.

Me: Ummm, don’t think so.

Son: I’d like to be a gray hat.

Me: How do you know what a gray hat is?

Son: Everyone knows what a gray hat is.

Me: Well--[In my head, I'm shouting redirect, redirect! Find something positive for him to do. And, of course, my mother's voice enters my head: Children should use their imaginations! Create their own play! Stop hovering! Seriously flawed advice for 2012, because in 1978, I did not have access the most powerful weapon in the world: information.] Why don't you see if M or S wants to ride bikes?

Son (interrupting): Can they spend the night? We've been making a plan to explore the woods after dark with flashlights. It’s okay because Grandpa taught me to make fire with my Bowie knife.

Me: Absolutely not. [Not sure I’m talking about the sleepover, the exploring, or the fire, but Grandpa's interest in survivalism and the lessons that follow need more monitoring.]

Son: Alright. [Big, dramatic almost-10-year-old-with-an-attitude sigh.] There’s spray paint in the garage, right?
In my head I'm thinking that being a gray hat doesn't sound so bad. Let's go back to that. Who knew a kid who knows how to fold socks would need so much supervision?

I tried having him tag along with me to meetings at the university where I teach, but a full professor in electrical engineering taught him to solder. I tried sending him to science camp, but one day they sent home live cricket pets and I thought that was the worst it could get. The next time, they sent home a bat house. I gave him over to Grandpa for the day and got a call asking if it would be okay to bring home some Matagascar hissing cockroaches because the science educator at the museum had too many and thought our son would enjoy them.

An upside-down photo of the bat house so
that it is presented right-side-up. Where
should we hang it? That is the question.
Of course, our neighbors might have
different questions...
I’d be the only mom in town trying to keep them alive.

Earlier, I blogged about how saying no means being able to say yes to something else, but it seems in August, I used the word no almost exclusively. My options for saying yes ran very thin.

Honestly, though, we’ve fostered this inquisitiveness. I recognize my direct responsibility for it. We buy LEGO bricks. We read about scientific discovery. We talk about inventors and inventions and being creative and innovative. In second grade, during Black History Month, he studied Charles Henry Turner who discovered bugs can hear instead of a famous politician or an athlete. He's had a favorite element from the periodic table since first grade. We do kitchen table science. We tried to find magnetite on the beach. Our first family helper specializes in innovation engineering. Our second is a scientist. She teaches him about rocks and takes him geocaching.

So, when the bus came around the corner this year, a little bit of relief crept in. I’m almost certain the computer curriculum includes no discussion of breaking code or letting kids watch experiments on YouTube about things that burn fast vs. things that don’t burn at all. The reading curriculum has been vetted by a children’s publisher and a team of educators and so I can expect that it will Do No Harm.

After the first week, I started seeing a new “logo” popping up on spare drawing paper. K-W-O-N-K.
Me: “What’s this?”

Son: It’s L’s new company logo.

Me: It’s cool.

Son: He gave me AKI, so now I own most of it. And I own one percent of K-W-O-N-K.
I love the business partner, L. I'd keep him, but his parents would definitely notice. He brings a sense of ethical boundaries and good citizenship to the team. AKI is their first company. AKI even has a tagline: For a better world tomorrow.

When I was my son’s age, I had two secret spots where I sat and read books that had been vetted by children’s editors at children’s publishing houses. When I really wanted to explore, I read the Children’s Encyclopedia. When I wanted to understand something adults were talking about, I secretly looked up things in the regular encyclopedia. The limits of my access to information were what I could find listed A-Z.

My son and his friends have the Internet, vetted by gray hats, pulling them one way on some days and another way on other days. It’s a different time, and it doesn’t matter if you send children out to ride bikes or climb in a fort, they compile their collective surreptitious Internet browsing.

I suppose I should feel some glee that my son and his good, ethical friend L are budding entrepreneurs, but the last time L was over, I had to take away the power drill and ferret out (then thwart) a secret plan to explore an iced-over body of water near our house after dark. By the time my husband got home, all my frantic texting conveyed our evening plans: full-court press supervision of the business partners.

Everyone tells me that it will be okay, that he’ll find his own path. The world has changed, though. Parents today stand in awe of parents who have grown, productive, good citizen adult children. Sometimes, I meet students and I want to write their parents a note: How did you create this awesome person who comes to my class prepared with interesting questions? What is your secret? We are hoping for kids like those, but parenting today is hard. If you don’t believe me, just google it.

And still, despite my worry about the son whose interests we’ve fostered, we’ve given our daughter her first LEGO bricks and take her to the home improvement stores every month to hammer things. She's got a membership to the local discovery museum and a medical kit she uses to give everyone pretend haircuts (well, she's four). But our enthusiasm is waning. For now, I hold onto AKI and hope the energy spent on it (and its brother company K-W-O-N-K) truly will lead to a better tomorrow and good citizen children who direct their penchant for exploration and innovation toward the greater good and far away from the gray areas.


  1. As a neighbor, I'm looking forward to you putting up a bat house, and would love to do the same myself. Too many bugs in this neighborhood; maybe some bats might help.

    As for the rest- heck, I don't even know what STEM is. . . .

  2. Ideas for where to put it? I can see it now. We are -literally- going to be the bat house.

    I'll get the kid to make you one at science camp.

    STEM=Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math education.