Exploring STEM and STEAM, especially at an early age, is a great way to open kids up to the wonderful worlds of science and math and the future possibilities that come with them.
But trying to encourage an interest in science with textbooks and workbooks is like trying to encourage an interest in cooking with a blender manual.
I know the only way we managed to get the girls interested in the kitchen was not by stressing the importance of being able to feed yourself but by binge-watching The Great British Bake Off and Master Chef Junior.
Both science and cooking are best learned by doing, but this can be intimidating at first, especially if parents and guardians are uncertain where to start themselves. So to encourage interest in a fun and stress-free way, including a few STEM and STEAM-related TV shows and movie nights into the family routine, can be a great way to start.
If your family already has a TV or movie night routine, which we will talk about more next month, this can be a fairly simple step. In general, giving parents or guardians a ‘turn’ to pick or a vote in the selections process is generally better than dictating choices. And trying to find the right program for the entire family, if not to fall in love with then at least to tolerate, can be difficult depending on age gaps, interests and what streaming platforms you may or may not have access to.
Next week I will list specific shows on each of the four main streaming platforms (Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Disney+) for each age group but before we get into that let’s take a look at the different types of programs out there and who they might appeal to.
STEM and STEAM shows for Kids
Follow Along Educational Programs
Anyone who has a toddler has stood in the kitchen waiting patiently for Dora the Explorer to answer her own question while quietly mumbling the answer under their breath. Follow along or call and response programs are a common feature in early childhood programs for a reason. They engage the audience in a meaningful way which is important for development in younger viewers. Call and response programs shift the engagement from passive to active, which is a critical aspect of learning that I will go over in more detail in a series coming this fall.
As tedious and mind numbing as these shows can be for adults, they are a valuable resource for younger viewers. Older siblings will likely not appreciate their inclusion in ‘family time’ viewing though, so they may be better suited for mid afternoon viewing when your younger kids may be reluctant to nap, but still definitely need some time to chill out a little.
Science Fiction … for Science Fact
I understand that a lot of parents may be confused by my inclusion of ‘Fiction’ in educational programming. But remember, the goal of these programs is not to teach kids the wavelengths of the visible light spectrum but to get them curious about how things like how space ships work or how different diets affect animals.
You will often hear NASA scientists and astrophysicists alike arguing about their favorite seasons of Star Trek or whether or not we are actually close to developing beaming technology, the esteemed Neil deGrasse Tyson among them. These are icons in the scientific world and while yes, some of them may have ended up where they were with or without a certain USS Enterprise, the fact that so many of them are avid Sci-Fi viewers is definitely a positive indicator to my mind.
Cooking Shows teach Chemistry
Again, there will be parents questioning my sanity and recommendations here, but I want to remind you of my analogy in the beginning. Cooking and Science, at their core, share more in common than you might think at first glance. The best examples of this are ‘Salt, Acid, Fat, Heat’ and ‘Chef vs. Science’.
Cooking shows are a great way to get students used to terminology that they will need in future science classes; proteins, starch, fat, acid, boiling point, and even words like denatured, crystallized, and cell walls. These and so many other terms are used in every day cooking to explain the chemical and physical processes which our food undergoes as we prepare it.
If your kid happens to pick up a passion for cooking along the way, so much the better.
These programs, depending on the specific one you choose, are great to start with as early as late elementary school and continue through middle school. While less useful for science education in older kids, they are none the less a fun viewing option for teens as well, so make a good family pick.
Creator Series for Engineering
Now this – this is what people think about when they look at the words STEM and STEAM. Building, design, ingenuity. These are the things that come to mind, and they are absolutely the core of an engineering mindset, though some of my selections may surprise you.
While a documentary on how the NASA shuttles work would no doubt be fascinating to me, it will likely be lost on an 8 year old. Instead, I challenge parents and caregivers to consider series that they may have otherwise brushed aside as I repeat the mantra – the goal is not to teach, it is to inspire curiosity.
Take a look at the process used to make their favorite candy or crayons. Look at series where people make things with their hands, like glass blowing or tinkering. Try robot battles or treehouse builds, look at aquarium design, or tiny houses.
The building blocks of engineering are just that, building blocks. Your child can get more benefit from Lego and Tree houses than computer lessons and workbooks.
Documentaries that Ask Questions
Documentaries are meant to answer questions, right? But what about shows that ASK questions. It is a small differentiation, but more often than not viewers, and kids especially, will respond better to programs where the host learns along with them rather than dictates information. Exploring a new concept with someone, seeing how excited or confused or frustrated they are throughout the process, provides and emphatic connection to the material which, often times, can make them easier to remember.
I still mix up the Newton’s laws… or I did until I watched an air pressure spear gun nearly take out half the myth busters team when they forgot to bolt down the canister. The immediate exclamation (after a round robin of ‘is everyone okay?’) was ‘The NEWTON LAWS!’. Yes, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Which means that when you try to launch a grappling hook style spear gun without bolting it down, you’d better make sure you aren’t standing behind it…
These same concepts also apply to nature documentaries, cultural or travel shows, and so much more. It is why celebrities learning about things are more interesting to watch than an expert in the field explaining the same concept. When you can learn WITH someone, you are experiencing their emotional journey to at least some degree. This actually triggers different parts of your brain which, in our caveman days, was how we remembered not to poke a sleeping tiger.
Nature Documentaries – Exploring the Natural World
Often when considering STEM and STEAM, our minds are drawn to the engineering and math aspect. However, areas such as genetics or *cough cough Biomedical research I believe most people would easily recognize as STEM. Rarely does a geneticist start with a fascination in chromosomes, often their curiosity is sparked with something much simpler. For Gregor Mendel, it was the color and shape of pea plants. For your future scientist, it could be how puppies grow.
With the development of better and better cameras, everyone from NatGeo to Disney has been creating nature and wildlife documentaries. And these can cover everything from documenting the migrations of elephants across the savanna, looking at the most bizarre or most aggressive or most poisonous animals, or even documenting the first six months of a litter of puppies development. While you may or may not recognize this as ‘science’, it is a beginning curiosity and an avenue into exploring our natural world.
Because of the spread of potential programs in this genre, they can be suitable for kids as your as 3 or as old as 30.
Whether your kids are 5 or 15, encouraging a general interest in science is as much about demystifying the vocabulary and processes behind the sciences as it is about encouraging a general curiosity in the world around us.
Presenting science as Science, with a capital S, can be intimidating even to many adults. But encouraging questions and introducing new concepts and vocabulary in a way that kids find accessible is one of the most important things we can do when teaching.
The world today is changing so quickly, and science, research, and technology-related jobs are so much a part of that. Scarring kids away from science by thrusting overly complicated and boring manuals at them can cut them off from such a huge part of the job market but, beyond that, close them off to a wealth of opportunities for personal growth.
So, however you choose to incorporate your science, don’t forget to make it a part of your regular family routine. Ask questions, get excited, and explore new worlds. Your kids will want to come along for the ride.
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