STEM Parenting: Nurturing Young Scientists From Pre-K through College

STEM Parenting: Nurturing Young Scientists From Pre-K through College

We recently had a Panel discussion where we spoke to three ‘STEM Parents’ about how they support and encourage their children in STEM education, from pre-school, high school and college. Joining us was Professor Rajini Rao, Dr Bill Carter and Dr La Vergne Lestermeringolo Thatch. Watch the video or keep reading below for a summary!

“Kids are naturally curious”

We started things off by speaking to Bill about the way he approaches parenting his 4 year old daughter Zoe. Bill and Zoe conduct fun science projects at home on weekends which are chronicled on Google+. For example they cleaned dull pennies using vinegar and salt, using it as an opportunity to discuss the oxidation of copper. To Bill,  it is most important  that his daughter not be afraid at all of science and engineering, from making things at home to eventually pursuing a STEM career. The key to successful engagement is just going for it- getting her “hands dirty”! Bill and his wife work together to come up with science experiments for Zoe. With the penny cleaning experiment, he explained how his daughter serendipitously found a “lucky penny” and together they figured out how to clean it which lead to talking about the science behind the process, of measuring out the correct amounts of vinegar and salt, putting it together in a bowl until finally emerging with a shiny penny!

“Kids are naturally curious. Whatever you’re doing, they’re going to dive right in to it whether you like it or not!”

We asked Bill about the challenges that he faces with trying to keep her interested and engaged, because even though children her age are naturally curious, they also can get bored easily. Bill highlighted that it was important to:

  1. Choose an activity that catches their attention
  2. Is short enough so they can complete it within a reasonable amount of time
  3. Factors in the ability of the adult – even though Bill is himself a scientist, he is not 100% fluent in all the activities so he has to find something that he can relate to as well
  4. Focus on teamwork – Bill regularly gets together with a group of parents informally and they have a ‘Make Day’ where they prepare project materials for their girls (ages 4-7). Here, Bill used the example of dropping Mentos into Diet Coke to demonstrate gas nucleation- a great example as it is dynamic and it is possible to see the effects immediately. Some of these experiments are chronicled in Mami Tales, by Bill’s friend and collaborator, Erika Grediaga (here and here). Bill says:

“There is real science in all these activities, and it’s easy to engage them.”

As a resource, Bill highly recommends the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which is a non-profit museum, as it is where he first became interested in STEM as well.

Science Adventures: Tadpoles, Snails and Turtles

We next moved on to speaking to La Vergne about her 10 year old daughter Elke and her interest in STEM. It was clear that Elke is an intensely curious child, and La Verge always made sure to answer her questions with as much information as she could. Although La Vergne’s training as a scientist and teacher has been immensely useful in answering these questions, the biology questions have placed her on a learning curve too as her background has been in Engineering, not Biology.

Turtle News from the Thatch Patch. Click here for more information.
Turtle News from the Thatch Patch. Click here for more information.

Elke’s science questions eventually evolved into a mother-daughter science blogging project, Science Adventures with ElKe and Dr. Thatch, and a subsequent book, Turtle News from the Thatch Patch. La Vergne said their science blogging started by accident in 2010. She related an endearing story about how her daughter was given a tadpole by a neighbour’s son which she promptly named ‘Guy’. Elke insisted on bringing Guy the tadpole with them on a road trip to Texas, and was fascinated with watching the process of amphibian metamorphosis. La Vergne found the best part was her daughter explaining the process of metamorphosis to everyone else using the correct scientific terms, clearly demonstrating how much attention she had been paying to their discussions.

Guy the Tadpole is now featured on the cover of a follow-up book, Metamorphosis: A Boggy Bayou Tale. Guy was the first of many pets, including snails and turtles, starting off an ongoing discussion of animal behaviours. When Elke observed that the snails were having ‘lots of babies’, this naturally led to a conversation about snail sexuality!

“I had to talk about snail sexuality, and my husband says ‘I want to hear this lesson!’

Relating Science to the Real World

Next we moved on to speaking to Rajini about her 22 year old daughter Anjana who recently finished a college degree in neuroscience. Rajini runs her own research lab at Johns Hopkins University, and we asked her how her experience as a working scientist helped her guide her daughter’s education. Rajini explained how as a working parent, it all began when daycare was closed and she had to take her daughter into the lab with her. Rajini said she had a drawer full of goodies for her daughter to play with, such as pipette boxes, tips and eppendorf tubes (standard fare in a molecular biology laboratory!). When her daughter entered middle school, they planned a different experiment each year for the science fair. Rajini made sure to pick something that was quantitative and measurable, and also explained a basic principle.

“It all began when daycare was closed, and my daughter came into the lab with me.”

Rajini suggested three great examples:

  1. Measuring the doubling time of yeast cells in response to different types of sugars.
  2. Looking at the relationship between wavelength and frequency of sound waves; Rajini explained how easy it was to buy a resonance tube online and measure the wavelength of a tuning fork.
  3. The depression of the freezing point of water by using salt.

All of these experiments could be related to the real world: why we salt the roads in winter, or how Arctic fish survive sub-zero temperatures by having antifreeze compounds in their blood. Every year they would make a poster, and her daughter would present it at school. Rajini emphasised that poster talks are a great way to build confidence in speaking and communicating skills. Her daughter decided very early on not to use cue-cards, and instead would practice her presentations in the shower! She became very good at laying out the structure of a talk and presenting it while making eye contact with the audience.

For students in high school, Rajini stressed the importance of thinking ahead towards college applications. A good strategy is to choose a topic that can be developed as a multi-year science project. For example, they began by testing different herbal extracts on yeast, to see which one had the most potent anti-fungal activity. The next year they looked up the active compounds present in the most potent herbal extract and tested their effects on the yeast cell, taking the study into more depth and eventually leading to a peer-reviewed publication (and poster, below). All this was invaluable for getting the attention of people in charge of college admissions, resulting in her daughter getting a merit scholarship and ending up in a very good program.

Example of a STEM parent activity for high school: research poster. Anjana Rao et al. Via Rao Lab.
Example of a Lab-based STEM parent activity for high school: research poster. Anjana Rao et al. Via Rao Lab. (Click to enlarge)

Rajini listed out many resources that are available to undergraduate students, especially under-represented minorities, once they are in college;

Rajini also recommended writing to local colleges and universities asking about summer placements working in labs. This is typically a hit or miss process but Rajini herself has hosted many high school students in her lab, and these students can be very bright, teachable young people.

STEM Parenting Tips: Nurturing Young Scientists From Pre-K through College
STEM Parenting Tips: Nurturing Young Scientists From Pre-K through College

Science is a Way of Life

As we were wrapping things up, Bill asked us a great question about the extent to which our activities have fed into the confidence of the children, with respect to science. La Vergne had a wonderful response to this;

“We all know that kids are curious. And we are feeding their curiosity by providing these activities, answering their questions, pushing them in the right direction to find answers to their questions. If we were to say “oh, not now” or “no, you’re too young for this” they will probably eventually stop asking questions.”

Kids are curious. Feed their curiosity with science! Dr La Vergne Lestermeringolo Thatch
Kids are curious. Feed their curiosity with science! Dr La Vergne Lestermeringolo Thatch

Rajini says:

“Science requires full immersion. Science is a way of life, and the way you look at the world around you. For us, it just permeates everything. It’s how I cook in the kitchen, the language that I use, it’s the way we ask questions everyday, and it’s good to get them starting to think like that very early on. And that is something, no matter what their future career, will stick to them their entire life.”

Science is a way of life. - Prof Rajini Rao
Science is a way of life. – Prof Rajini Rao

Over to You

Do you do science with your kids? What activities captures their imagination?


Images copyright:

  1. Dr Bill Carter
  2. Mami Tales (1) and (2)
  3. Science Adventures with Elke and Dr. Thatch.

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