By Nora Heston Tarte

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is more than just a buzz word. In the realm of education, it has become an integral part of early development, and experts are learning that early exposure to STEM is beneficial for both academics and career readiness. It is, however, increasingly important throughout the ages. “It grows from awareness to engagement,” says Jeremy Babendure from the AZ Sci-Tech Festival. “Overall, it’s about exposure at the early ages and beginning to transition to more in-depth programming.” So how can parents and teachers encourage positive participation in STEM activities throughout a child’s life? Jeremy clues us in on the importance of STEM and how parents can encourage STEM learning. “It is important that the public recognizes STEM is all around us [and] is critical to both everyday life along with most careers.”

Early Stages

Starting at a very early age parents can explore local resources with their kids to introduce them to STEM in an informal environment. Spots like the Arizona Science Center, the i.d.e.a. Museum, and the Tucson Children’s Museum feature programming tailored to the youngest learners, which can be especially useful to help introduce kids to these topics before entering school. Jeremy punctuates the importance of STEM education for every age by looking at how it relates to all facets of learning. STEM education “builds basic problem-solving skills, gets kids thinking about the world around them, [and] helps them to apply their math and reading skills to the real world,” he says. “It is only going to get more important as we continue to grow as a technology driven economy.”

The Sci-Tech festival, which runs through April, opens up a lot of opportunities for students to explore STEM topics throughout the state, but even when the festival has wrapped, kids can continue to explore STEM at an early age. Local science centers as well as libraries are focused on bringing STEM education to the youngest learners. Just check the local calendar for upcoming events.

Events to check out: 2020 SciTech Festival at the Buckeye Air Fair (2/9), Family Sci-Fest at the Tucson Children’s Museum (2/15) and the Tres Rios Nature Festival in Tolleson (2/29-3/1).

Grade School

In elementary school kids begin to explore STEM topics in a more traditional setting. Instead of the self-exploration most fitting for younger kids, once in a classroom the lessons become more focused. Expanding science programming in elementary schools is one way that experts are getting kids better exposed to STEM. Instead of the more open-ended science courses, elementary students will get an early introduction into topics such as physics that are easy to build upon over the course of their academic career. By introducing these topics early, teachers are able to get kids interested in STEM topics at a young age and support an interest in these career fields early on.

Many experts support the inclusion of STEM in early grade levels because the coursework fosters a love of learning and exploration during the most important years. STEM topics, especially when taught through age-appropriate coursework, has the ability to spark the natural curiosity of kids at this age. By teaching this skillset early—one that asks students to engineer and problem-solve—teachers are setting children up for success in future learning and careers, starting them off with a way of thinking that is designed for Arizona-based careers.

Events to check out: Greenfield Star Party at Greenfield Elementary (2/6), Conservation Science Night at the Phoenix Zoo (2/21) and Cortina’s 5th Annual STEAM Night at Cortina Elementary (2/27).

Beyond

One of the biggest goals of STEM education in local schools is to prepare kids for the future. Open jobs in the local workforce tend to focus around STEM topics. This includes engineering and video game design as well as sustainability careers or simply those that require a unique approach to problem solving. Throughout grade levels, teachers are preparing kids to work in STEM fields in order to create desirable candidates for the workforce as well as propel the state of Arizona forward.

In high school, STEM becomes increasingly important for these reasons. The students are likely deciding their next step, may it be college or career, and a strong background in and/or understanding of STEM topics can aid in either.

Events to check out: ASU @ Open Door (2/1, 2/8, 2/29), 2020 Arizona Science Bowl for High School (2/8) and Chandler Innovation Fair at Hamilton High School (2/22).

The Arizona SciTech Festival

The SciTech Festival works to bring STEM education to kids from January-April each year. Now in its ninth season, the programming is adaptable to students of all ages as well as different interests. For example, Connect2STEM can be applicable at elementary levels to get students exposed to medical careers all the way to in-depth discussions of specific technologies or research more appropriate for the postsecondary level. “The magic of the event is the ability to engage regional communities to come together and celebrate the STEM that is relevant around them,” Jeremy says. Throughout the events, local companies such as Intel, Northrup Grumman, PayPal, school district partners, city partners and community partners gather to bring local issues and trends to students.

Students can learn from these companies as well as other businesses in Tempe, Buckeye, Sahuarita, Prescott, Gila Valley and more. Not only do they have the opportunity to learn about subjects that relate to their schoolwork, for even the youngest students much of the programming relates to career readiness and the pathways they may wish to pursue in the future.

To attend a SciTech Festival event, visit azscitech.com. Events from more than 800 partners will be offered over the course of the festival and themed days and weekends will look at exciting STEM topics including farm science, conservation and sustainability. Here are some of our favorites:

  • ASU Open Door: Once a year invites the local community, adults and children of all ages, to experience ASU and discover why it was named one of the most innovative universities in the nation for four years in a row. ASU Open Door welcomes visitors to our four campus locations, allowing visitors to explore spaces that are normally closed to the public. Visitors have the opportunity to participate in hundreds of interactive, hands-on activities and talk to students, faculty and staff. Free. 1-5pm on the following dates: Feb 1 at ASU West Campus, Feb 8 at ASU Downtown Phoenix Campus, Feb 22 at ASU Tempe Campus, Feb 29 at ASU Polytechnic Campus. opendoor.asu.edu
  • Conservation Science Night at Phoenix Zoo: Meet real conservation scientists and learn about the work we do to help save species in Arizona and around the world. Explore hands-on STEM activity stations as you help solve real-life challenges facing wildlife today. Feb 21 from 6-8pm.  The event is free, but advanced registration is required as space is limited. Call 602.914.4333 to reserve your spot today! phoenixzoo.org/event-items/conservation-science-night-at-the-phoenix-zoo/
  • Buckeye Air Fair: The City of Buckeye is hosting its 6th Annual SciTech Festival at the Buckeye Air Fair. This one-day, family friendly event will provide interactive science, math, art and technology activities from over 40 booths. Join the fun! Free. Feb 8 from 8am -5pm. Buckeye Municipal Airport, 3000 S. Palo Verde Rd., Buckeye. buckeyeaz.gov/residents/events-in-buckeye/buckeye-air-fair/activities/scittech-festival
  • Southwest Maker Fest: This free outdoor event in Downtown Mesa invites you and your family to be empowered by creativity and participate in hands-on activities throughout the festival. See ideas brought to life,  share ideas and learn with Arizona’s community of inspiring makers – all ages of scientists, artists, teachers, inventors, engineers and more! You can also explore the i.d.e.a. Museum for free during the event. Free. Feb 15 from 10am-4pm. 150 W. Pepper Pl, Mesa. southwestmakerfest.com
  • Tres Rios Nature Festival: Sat Bring out the family to enjoy the great outdoors on the banks of the Tres Rios in Avondale. Nature lovers, visitors and families can look forward to another outstanding weekend long spring outdoor event. Along with great entertainment, attendees will be able to see wildlife up close, learn from the plethora of educational displays, try a new outdoor sport like paddle boarding, and more.  Kid-friendly activities, educational displays, entertainment and vendors make this a great event for the entire family. Free. Feb 29 & March1, 10am-4pm. Base and Meridian Wildlife Area, located adjacent to ISM Raceway in Avondale, five miles south of I-10, 7602 S. Avondale Blvd., Avondale. Tresiosnaturefestival.com

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