Math and science are responsible for the advances that make modern life possible.
They're also a lot of fun for kids to explore. And an interest in those subjects now leads to a promising future.
Career prospects are bright for those in the so-called STEM fields. That stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that jobs in these fields will grow 17 percent from 2008 to 2018, faster than every sector except health care.
"That's where the economy is going," says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition. "In order to get almost any job in the economy, you need these skills."
And STEM workers don't just include number-crunching mathematicians and scientists scurrying around labs in white coats. This category also includes people who work in architecture and manufacturing. Plus, adults who get jobs in STEM fields or students who choose them as college majors tend to command higher salaries than the average worker.
Does your child's future lie in STEM?
It just might, if something sparks his interest. Kids' inborn curiosity leads them to want to know more about how the world works.
"We are natural problem-solvers when we're born into this world," says Tony Murphy, director of the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment program. "We build things and we knock them down, and we build them again."
Obstacles for Kids in Science
But most kids lose their fascination in these subjects as they get older. Researchers have found that one-third of students lose interest in science by fourth grade. Another 17 percent lose it middle school.
Much of the reason for this lost interest can be found in the way teachers are trained, says Murphy, former executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University. College-level elementary education programs are designed to prepare teachers how to educate children from kindergarten through sixth grade. With such a large range of developmental stages in those grades, aspiring teachers don't get much training in how to teach science in an engaging way, Murphy says.
Another problem is that most schools' curricula emphasize reading and math more than technology and engineering, Brown says. The tests that students are required to take in public schools assess how well they do in basic subjects, which leave less time for teachers to have fun teaching about science and technology.
And many kids and parents have mistaken beliefs about jobs in STEM fields. Say the word "engineer" to a lot of children, and they'll think of someone who drives a train. And Eric Darr, interim president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, notes that many girls think math and science aren't suited for females. Visitors to his college in Pennsylvania are often surprised to learn that more than half the students are women.
Fun While Learning
The lack of resources in many schools and the misconceptions people have about the STEM fields means you might have to put some extra effort into encouraging your kids to explore them. But it will be worth the effort if it sparks your child's curiosity.
Libraries. Learning doesn't have to cost money. Next time you take your children to the library, encourage them to borrow books about subjects that interest them. Maybe they'd like to know more about the cicada shell you found in the park or how to make paper airplanes fly farther.
Museums. Check out museums near your home and in cities you visit on vacation. Marvel at a planetarium show or walk through a life-size model of the human heart. Take the kids to special traveling exhibits.
Local colleges. Science and engineering departments at colleges – from community colleges to big-name universities – often host day-long programs for families to learn while having fun. Harrisburg University, for example, organized an event about the science behind making chocolate.
Summer camps. Does your child take apart the electronics in your house? She might love a computer camp. A kid who captures the toads in your yard would have fun during a summer program at the local zoo.
After-school clubs. A lot of schools have clubs for kids to have fun practicing science. Kids can work together to build robots or plant a garden.
Professional websites. Whether your child is interested in chemistry, physics, math, computers or weather, there are professional associations for adults who work in those fields. Brown says most of their websites have resources for parents.
Science, engineering, technology and math are the keys to many of the jobs of the future. But these subjects also offer kids plenty of opportunity to have fun while learning. Encourage your kids to explore their interest in how the world works, and you might just lead them to their lifelong passion.