Dr. Al Byers: Introducing STEM Concepts to Your Kids

Al S. Byers, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and visiting scholar in STEM education at the VCU School of Education. He is also the interim director of the Center for Innovation in STEM Education, a center affiliated with SOE. Dr. Byers is an expert in STEM education, driving proven solutions for districts and universities across his 20+ year career. Like many of us, he is working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are his Top Five Tips for Introducing STEM Concepts to Your Kids.

Headshot of Al Byers, Ph.D.
Al S. Byers, Ph.D.

Research shows that students determine their future career interest as early as upper elementary and middle school, particularly in the more arduous STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. This could be the perfect time to foster your kids’ natural curiosities while introducing STEM topics.

1. Leverage a topic your kids are already interested in.

It could be something like bugs, birds, butterflies, flowers, gardens, race cars, rockets, space science like black holes, the moon and the nighttime sky, etc. It might also be engineering-focused, such as: how their cell phone/wireless or wired earphone works, why their battery charge goes down more quickly after a period of time/usage, or what’s going on behind the scenes to make my massive multi-player online game work? It might be technology-focused, like: how to make a stop-frame animation on their laptop, or how do movie special effects get made?

Here's an example a high school freshman made talking about the value of computer science, and animation that may be used to explain how a rocket works: https://youtu.be/Monj5sE-qH0.

2. If possible, select a topic that involves hands-on engagement.

Skip passively reading a screen and focus on collecting data, making and recording observations, and developing models to help explain how something works. This provides a deeper level of learning beyond just reading and clicking “Next” on a screen.

There is much going on outside: the spread of dandelions or other weeds, why is the sky blue – or orange and yellow during the early morning and evening hours, why do some objects in the night sky appear so much brighter than others, why do some twinkle, or even appear red at night? Why can you sometimes see the moon during the day? There are so many "phenomena" to explore and think about! Get creative! Check out: https://www.ngssphenomena.com/ for more resources.

3. Many at-home activities for students involve readily accessible items.

For example, if you want to focus on engineering design, consider https://www.teachengineering.org/. Many activities are free or very reasonably priced. (Look for the video demonstrating the voltage that is produced from a potato!) There is also a LinkEngineering Exchange by the National Academy of Engineering with many free resources.

4. Encourage students to explore what their future careers might be.

There are free tools to help them explore these opportunities:

For kids with a natural curiosity about the COVID-19 pandemic, encourage them to explore potential careers in the field of virology, such as: instructional designer, mathematical statistician, epidemiologist, infectious disease scientist, pathologist, data scientist, medical journalist and even a 3-D printing expert (for printing face masks).

5. Consider the online resources that are available.

First, consider looking to local sources that are already in your neighborhood. For example, the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond has a "Learn" page that hosts a series of explorations called "experimental musings" and "climate connections” that you may want to check out: https://www.smv.org/learn. They also have a "Stay Connected" page featuring content "to keep the curiosity going at home!" https://smv.org/stay-connected.

There are also major national museums and government agencies that have activities for students and parents: