By Nora Heston Tarte

By now every parent should be familiar with STEAM (science-technology-engineering-art-math) education. In STEAM, five areas of study are lumped together to represent a learning philosophy that suggests all of these topics overlap and therefore should not be taught in isolation. The goal of STEAM is to produce a competitive and agile workforce for the future.

Because STEAM represents a slew of related learning concepts, we, as parents, don’t always think of the subjects individually. To fully understand the benefits of STEAM, it’s important to break them down and study how each part lends to a comprehensive and varied education. For example, engineering offers a distinct set of benefits that propel children’s critical thinking and building skills. “Engineering is about the practical application of knowledge in order to design, create and invent new things,” says Dena Milliron, curator of education at the i.d.e.a. Museum in Mesa.

Benefits of Engineering

Jeremy Scott, managing partner of Bonanza Educational, a Chandler-based, locally owned and operated company, puts it simply. “[Engineering is] coming to an understanding of the complexity of how things work.”

Like any subject, introducing engineering at a young age allows for better absorption of the material. Starting with a foundation of basic engineering practices and building on them over time is beneficial for young minds.

“We need engineers and artistic, creative people to solve the problems of humanity from environmental to educational to political,” Milliron says.

The changing education in Arizona directly relates to the world around us; as it becomes more technological, STEAM becomes more important.

Engineering also supports teamwork, collaboration and communication skills that will benefit children in any field they pursue. When introduced early, children are more likely to pursue engineering as a career. This is especially important for young girls, as research has shown girls are less likely to work in STEAM fields as adults.

“Girls are just as good if not better than guys on these robots,” says Jack Hamlett, Chief Mad Scientist at Mad Science of Scottsdale/NE Phoenix, which offers robotics classes among other STEAM subjects.

As an added bonus, engineering careers are anticipated to provide livable wages when our generation of children becomes adults.

Application

Supplemental education programs in Arizona allow children the opportunity to explore engineering and gain a more complex understanding of its practices during K-12 education.
At Bonanza Educational, children participate in enrichment education programming, such as after-school classes, summer and school break day camps, evening classes, weekend workshops and other programming to compliment what they’re learning during regular school hours.

More than half of Bonanza’s programs use LEGO parts as a tool. In the Engineering with LEGO class, students can learn about all six classic machines, from the lever to the wheel and axel. “Kids can’t believe how complex our basic projects get, yet we are barely scratching the surface,” Scott says.

Using building blocks also speaks to the kinesthetic learning techniques many children favor, and learning with LEGO doesn’t have to be limited to formal instruction. Available just about everywhere, parents can explore the world of engineering with their children by simply playing with blocks at home.

Mad Science utilizes a similar format for children in grades K-6 with science classes, workshops, after-school classes, summer camps, preschool classes and birthday parties.
Robotics classes, along with many other Mad Science classes, help students build important life skills.

“Through a child’s eyes, they’re able to accomplish something that they’ve never done before working with robotics,” Hamlett says. It plays right into their confidence, providing an organic way to advance as students move from building more basic solar-powered robots to more complex ones.

It also builds their reading comprehension skills because they must accurately read the instructions in order to be successful in building their ‘bot.
The classes really focus on the success of the student. Hamlett suggests that is parents want to get involved in their child’s robotics education, they should go to the local library or browse online to find materials to support their child in these endeavors. But they should also sign them up for classes.

“A lot of parents aren’t familiar with robotics,” Hamlett points out, referencing the generational gap. “You’ve got to let them do their own thing with the robots.”
When parents do want to get involved, they can head to a local museum. Staff at i.d.e.a. combine the components of STEAM and applies them to projects that meet the interests of their young participants but also appeal to the whole family. For example, in a recent program titled “All Aboard Trains!,” staff provided opportunities for kids to design their own train, pretend to drive one and draw train tracks using perspective.

“We want caregivers and their children to come away with a learning experience that helps them view their world differently,” Milliron says.
At its core, hands-on applications allow children to have experiences that directly relate to their ideas. As children play, they learn to build solutions by completing their own experiments, reflecting on their experiences and asking questions as they assess what they know.

“Experiential learning is the cornerstone of STEAM education,” Milliron says.

“A lot of kids don’t understand how far they can go by learning this stuff,” Hamlett adds. “You’ve got to know this stuff to get ahead.”

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