STEM isn’t just a buzzword in schools – it’s a crucial part of many homeschools too. As of 2014, it was estimated that almost two million young people were homeschooled in the US – or about 3.4 percent! That’s a lot of homeschools taking on STEM, but it sometimes has its challenges.
Over at Blog, She Wrote by Heather Woodie, STEM is a mainstay with posts such as “100 STEM Activities for Kids & Teens of all Kinds.” While Heather has the advantage of having been a biology teacher and having an engineer husband, she believes you don’t need this background to teach STEM in a homeschool. But she does have some advice for those homeschoolers.
Be a Science “Yes” Mom (or Dad)
Keeping a “yes, we can” attitude – no matter your STEM background – is key to getting hands on with STEM.
“I’ve written about being a science ’yes’ mom. If kids come to you with a question or they want to try something, instead of putting it off and making sure you have all your ducks in a row, just say ’yes’ and you figure it out as you go,” Heather said. “I think that’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks I see for parents, because they feel like they have to have all the right worksheets and all the right equipment, and it all has to be organized and ready to go or they can’t possibly do it well. Just say ’yes.’ You don’t have to have all the worksheets.”
For part of her reasoning, she looks to her husband’s job as an engineer at Cornell University.
“Scientists there and at any institution of research, nobody gives them a worksheet. Nobody gives them a data chart. They have to design it. They have to be the ones that make their record keeping and make the Excel file to be what they need for what they’re doing,” she explained. “Nobody has the cookbook and sets it out and says, ‘This is the science we’re doing today.’ All those guys and ladies are making their own way with the science and going for it – and that’s what I recommend at home. Design your own experiments using the scientific method and help your kids to see how to best to find an answer to their question.
“Sometimes saying ’yes’ and doing that with your kids, without worrying about how it looks and how its organized, really gets science done.”
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Easy to say with a science background, right? Heather contends that learning STEM with the kids happens for her in her homeschool as well as for parents without a science or engineering career. She emphasizes that setting aside your own discomfort with the subject matter will help your children in the long run.
“We all come to the school table with some baggage from our own schooling,” Heather said. “So if you perceive yourself as just not being that kind of person, that’s probably the second biggest thing besides cost. Actually, I would say it’s the biggest thing, because there are so many work-arounds for cost.”
Take Advantage of Your FlexibilityHeather encourages you to take advantage of something possible in homeschools that would never work in a traditional classroom. Focus on a subject or activity for as long as it’s fun and productive instead of confining it to the length of a typical class period.
“If we want to just focus on STEM for a while, we can. And we can focus on something else at another time,” she said. “In a classroom, you may have 45 minutes to teach this big science thing and then you have to find the breaking point. At home, you can just keep going. If you’re still having a good time and you’ve spent an hour on it, just keep going.”
Pick Things Your Kids – and You – Love As a biologist, Heather admits that she loves to use biology activities to teach STEM. A glance at her post on 100 STEM activities does indicate this preference. However, she also enjoys the earth sciences.
“If I’d gone back to school for another certification, it would have been Earth Science. I really like doing earth science because you can pull in a lot of different disciplines.”
So if there’s an area of STEM you especially like, tap into that and look for creative connections that might excite your children. Of course, don’t forget to listen to what your kids enjoy and be open to learning it with them too.
“I like anything that my kids enjoy, so we do a lot of robotics. My 12-year-old loves programming, and he reads programming language books. It’s fun to watch him do his thing,” she added.
Get Creative to Get Big Ticket Tools
One issue a lot of homeschools face is affording the kind of tools that traditional schools use to teach and provide students with a hands-on experience with STEM, such as microscopes, testers, robotics sets, rocket launchers, and software.
One option is to form a homeschooling group or co-op, where different families can contribute to the pricier equipment and then share. As a group, you can also work together to find sponsors that will donate funds to cover part or all of the costs of the equipment. Heather said her homeschool group participated in FIRST® LEGO® League, a large robotics competition for children ages 9-16. They found a sponsor to cover the cost of the robotics set and then parents could cover the other costs.
Photo by blogshewrote.org
She adds that when it comes down to it, sometimes saving up for these things is a good investment. Robotics is one area she sees this being an advantage, saying there are a ton of teaching opportunities with the activity as well as a lot of resources available.
“With the people that I talk to, a lot of them want their kids to get into robotics or programming,” Heather said. “A lot of times they settle for little programs that are kind of tight in what they can offer, and if you went the extra mile you’d get something that would last a lot longer and offer your kid a lot more.”
Tap into Available ResourcesToo often today we all turn to distant sources online to use as our resources, such as for grants, videos, and other educational opportunities. Sometimes we need to look closer to home.
Some homeschooling groups can apply for grants, but private groups like Heather’s are generally not as successful with that. Instead, they’ve been sponsored by a Cornell University lab.
“Cornell is a land-grant university, so they often have a lot of outreach,” Heather explained. “Take advantage of that as well. In fact, we do use our university quite a bit, not just because my husband works there but because it’s offered in our community. If you live nearby to a college or university, they can be a huge resource as well. Being a homeschooler requires a lot of resourcefulness.”
Learning to reach out to professionals you know, organizations and universities in your area, and any other outlets with educational potential is key to giving your homeschooler more opportunities.