If you’re a parent of a student, or an educator, or even a student or recent graduate yourself, you’ve likely been hearing a steady drumbeat of “STEM education” for the past 10 years, if not longer. As a whole, US education has really stepped up to incorporate STEM into all aspects of learning; it should be a relief to many parents that these opportunities are now readily available for most kids.
While not every child is going to grow up to be a programmer, engineer or website developer, we as parents and educators can still use these STEM skill sets to our everyday advantage. While STEM education has the potential to influence lifetime earning potential and employability, students will still have a need for these skills regardless if they go into a specific STEM career.
Take coding and programming, for example — one of the activities widely touted as something that should be a building block of elementary education and beyond as we head into the future. Most of us are aware that there is a heavy focus on logic and math involved in learning and mastering most forms of programming, but as it turns out, those aren’t the only parts of our minds that start spinning into action when we take to the keyboard and start coding up a storm.
Researchers who have studied the human brain using advanced neuroscience techniques have discovered that many of the areas that are linked to language processing also light up while coding. Given how complex the brain is, it’s clear we’re only scratching the surface of these kinds of connections, and we should be excited to learn more about how studying the ins and outs of programming could help strengthen our grasp on language and our other cognitive faculties.
The benefits for students aren’t purely theoretical or an area of interest just for scientists, however. A growing appreciation is taking hold across our education system for “computational thinking” and the ways in which it can help strengthen our approach to a remarkable variety of life’s challenges. As Jeanette M. Wing, head of basic research at Microsoft and former professor at Carnegie Mellon puts it, this way of viewing the world is as useful for “a basic task like planning a trip — breaking it into booking flights, hotels, car rental” as it is for “something as complicated as health care or policy decision-making.”
It’s easy to see how this kind of STEM-influenced approach can be blended into the lessons needed throughout a person’s lifetime. Integrating it into the ways we educate children from a young age can go a long way toward instilling powerfully effective habits of maintaining what we might call mental discipline, no matter what kind of problems students are faced with solving.
The key takeaway here is that even for those students who don’t gravitate naturally toward STEM, or who simply haven’t had many opportunities to explore it, there’s a significant boost to their overall education and development to be found. And while there’s plenty of conversation to be had about how we move toward more holistically designed curricula across the nation, we should all also consider how we can accomplish it at the local or even personal level.
Consider the Hour of Code Challenge spearheaded by the nonprofit organization Code.org. Held during Computer Science Education week each year in December, it’s an opportunity to partake in fun, engaging introductory lessons aimed at sparking an interest in coding, no matter one’s age or educational background. Anyone can organize a group event for Hour of Code anywhere in the country, and it makes for the perfect way to introduce your child or even a whole classroom to a new way of thinking and understanding the world. Parents can even join in to undertake the challenge alongside their children, making it a unique way to bond while also reinforcing how fun education can be.
The beauty of experiences like Hour of Code and others that offer a gateway into STEM education is that even though not every child who participates in them will necessarily go on to become a computer programmer or an engineer or a scientist, they will still come away with a new perspective on critical thinking and reasoning. They can continue to apply these skills throughout their education, no matter what they choose to focus on. And ultimately, instilling this kind of appreciation for interdisciplinary study from a young age can be a critical component in helping kids grow into the well-rounded adults we hope for them to become.