So you want to support your kids’ interests in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) – and maybe help them learn a little coding, too? Given that only an estimated 5-10% of public schools teach computer science, you might be wondering how to accomplish that last one.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a genius yourself to raise a child who will not only survive but also thrive in an increasingly digital-dominated economy. The following recommendations are road-tested and carry a seal of approval from our very own DEG parents, aunts, uncles, and friends. Any parent or caregiver, regardless of STEM background, can help kids with these activities.

First Steps

Science, technology, electronics, mathematics“Sure, STEM sounds great, but I bet it’s really expensive.”

If this is your fear, good news! You don’t have to run right out and download every fancy-schmancy kids’ coding program in the App Store, or purchase insanely expensive robotics kits. In fact, your first step is free – just kick your kids off the couch and limit their screen time to no more than two hours a day, as per the American Academy of Pediatrics. Free play, especially getting outside, helps kids develop imagination, learn to experiment, test themselves, establish independence, and build confidence. Group play also helps kids figure out collaboration and teamwork.

Believe us, if you ever intend to try coding (let alone carry out any kind of major analysis, really), you will need all of the above.

STEM – Summer Camps, School Activities, and More

Free play is great, but all summer long…? Most parents would shudder at the thought. Now is the time to enroll in local STEM camps and classes.

Check with your closest Parks and Rec. Here in the Kansas City area, Blue Valley, Lenexa, and Overland Park, and KCK offer everything from web design to robotics. You can also find some of these local options centralized through Mad Science of Greater Kansas City. Math Monkey in Leawood is also now enrolling for Lego Robotics and Engineering Summer Camps. If you have a middle school girl interested in STEM, Dawn Kernen, our Director of Analytics and Insights, swears by the Emporia State University summer camps – Expanding Your Horizons and Master It. Enrollment is limited and competitive.

Curious about area schools’ STEM offerings? Check out Project Lead the Way’s School Locator to see who in your area has embarked on an enhanced STEM curriculum, including biomedical research and computer science. However, even if your school isn’t on the list, don’t forget about the good old standby, the Chess Club. It’s a classic for a reason, and DEG’s Dayle Crane swears by it for his kids. Dayle also researched this offering, the Kauffman Foundation’s KC STEM Alliance, which can connect you to extracurricular activities such as the FIRST Robotics Championships Competitions.

Your child’s teacher might also be able to sign up for a free supplemental online STEM offering, like Sumdog – or parents can even set up a Sumdog account themselves. The app allows the kid to play math games and the parents to track their progress.

For older kids, there’s tons of full STEM curricula online, like this one at I’m a big fan of the nonprofit (and free) online Khan Academy, where kids can accumulate badges in all sorts of STEM topics. If you have a fifth grader who wants to work his way up through college math, that’s no problem at Khan. (And if, like me, you’re a qualitative researcher who occasionally needs a refresher on stats, that works, too.)

You can find other STEM activities in your community – don’t forget Science City at Union Station, the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, and Wonderscope for the little ones. Check their website for coupons or special offers. This year, Maker Faire is also coming to Union Station on June 28 and 29.

Some local businesses also open up STEM tours for grade school kids – for example, Niki Adams’ daughter loved touring Garmin with her Girl Scouts troop. Here at DEG, for Bring Your Kid to Work Day, we take time to walk kids through projects on using Kanban, drawing wireframes, building websites, you name it.

Building and Coding

You don’t have to be able to build a computer (or even a circuit board) in order to code a program, but the skills are definitely related. Plus, building in general is an incredibly valuable process for developing minds. Lego is, or course, a great start. But for those kids ready to move on to the next phase, try these building activities:

  • Goldieblox is a basic engineering kit aimed at young girls, but obviously fine for boys, too (meaning, not overly pink). Warning: While my preschooler played with her pulley kit, I made the mistake of leaving the room – just for a second! – and then returned to a crazy obstacle course of scarves and ribbons very creatively tangled around doorknobs and furniture legs. It eventually required scissors to set the living room free.
  • Snap Circuits to teach kids about the basics of electronics, without anything complicated like soldering kits. With this one kit, you can build tons of projects, everything from a burglar alarm to doorbells.
  • If you want to build virtually as well as physically, try the Tekkit package of mods for Minecraft.

If you have an older kid, maybe one who’s done several STEM activities before and is getting a little jaded, perhaps it’s time to turn them loose on more complex projects. (Note: We highly recommend parental supervision.) Likewise, in some cases, you may also want to have a fire extinguisher readily available. If those guidelines don’t scare you, then check out the DIY projects on these sites:

  • Adafruit – Not just for kids. My husband actually loves this site. He likes making his own solar cell phone rechargers for his friends. Easy for teens to do, too.
  • Arduino – Billed as an open-source electronics prototyping platform for artists, designers, and hobbyists.
  • Sparkfun – Blogs and tutorials on building fun stuff – and you can buy the parts from them, as well.

Where does all this building lead you? Why, to building your own computer, of course. If you use the Raspberry Pi system (that link is to the Adafruit starter kit), that’s only going to run you about $100. As DEG developer Dallas Gaddis very convincingly explains, “The beauty of this system is that if your kid crashes the board, then no problem, a new one is just $30. Which definitely beats having them trying to hack your $500 iPad.” Our Creative Director, Adam Seitz, supplied this link for the soon-to-be released Kano system, powered by Raspberry Pi, which will let your kids not only build the system but code it to play videos, games, music, and more.

This brings us to code. Code, code, code. There is definitely no shortage of kids’ coding apps available for smartphones and tablets, but we really like Hopscotch. Developer Patrick Delancey also recommends Super Markup Man for beginning html.

A great activity to get going at your local schools is the Hour of Code event, which offers activities for ages five and up. Patrick even led two Hour of Code sessions here at DEG recently – because it’s not like all of us know how to code, either. A fabulous local resource is also Coder Dojo KC, a volunteer-driven kids’ coding effort sponsored by Google Fiber and Kansas City Women in Technology.

Filter, filter, filter

One caveat: DO NOT CLICK ALL THESE LINKS. Do not download everything, do not buy everything, do not even try to do it all. Remember, these are kids, and they need to sleep – also with kids, less usually tends to be more, and shared experiences are far more meaningful than stuff. When it comes to STEM, pick one or two age-appropriate areas, then focus.

How to filter? Just remember the whole point – you are trying to cultivate an overall state of mind, rather than build up specific subject matter experience. All the activities listed above help inspire creative problem solving, divergent thinking, critical analysis, pattern recognition, and logic. Your goal is to awake a deep and enduring curiosity about how and why things work. You want to build up the confidence, persistence, and resourcefulness necessary to try new ideas and take risks. It takes guts not just to build something but also to break it if that’s what it takes to improve the next prototype.

If you can awaken those sparks in your kids, then you aren’t just giving them the tools to negotiate an increasingly digital world – you’re also giving them the resilience and determination to make that world a better place.

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