Your child comes home from pre-kindergarten and tells you to shut off the lights when you leave the room to save electricity. You aren't being scolded; your child may be interested in science. While science isn't usually a major focus of schools until students are older, one academic says children should begin learning STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects as early as three years of age. Children develop strong attitudes towards science by age 10, according to Joyce Duckles, a doctoral candidate in human development at the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education.
Duckles has been studying how three-to-five-year-old children in 16 families interact with parents and siblings as it relates to STEM subjects. Her qualitative research shows that parents' self-image as science-oriented persons deeply influence their children. Parents who feel they were not successful in school science may show a lack of confidence that can negatively shape the way their children view this subject as they mature.
Duckles' advice for parents interacting with children about science: "What we need to do is validate what parents are doing at home and expand the notion of what science is."
The goal isn't necessarily to get more children to pursue science careers—although this is needed in the U.S.—but to make them aware of the world around them. "Doing science means a lot of different things," Duckles says, from reading and interpreting medical information to understanding how the environment affects our planet.
Parents can't solely rely on the public school system to nourish a child's interest in STEM. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 actually discouraged children from exploring these subjects, critics say, since teachers were under pressure to stay within the confines of their state-mandated curriculums.
The numbers paint a grim picture. In the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparison, American students ranked 21st out of 30 in science literacy among students from developed countries, and 25th out of 30 in math literacy, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math tests, fourth graders showed no signs of progress for the first time in years, and eight graders tallied only modest progress.
Indeed, American students are not advancing in these areas. But with the Educate to Innovate initiative under the Obama Administration, STEM awareness is heading in the right direction. The White House appears to be committed to increasing STEM literacy of America's students through five major public-private partnerships, which include TimeWarner Cable's Connect a Million Minds initiative, Discovery Communications' Be The Future initiative and PNC's Grow Up Great program, and as well as National Lab Day and the Digital Media and Learning Competition.
Like everything else, it all begins at home. "I strongly believe this is where much of the focus needs to be," Duckles says.
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