As someone who has worked in the fields of science, engineering, and technology for the duration of my career, I can attest to the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. I spent four years as an astronaut instructor at NASA, 16 years as a teacher, and am currently a STEM instructor at iFLY Seattle.

STEM education prepares children for the future.  By the time today’s children are entering the workforce, they will be filling roles in jobs that do not currently exist. In order to prepare for those opportunities, it is crucial to provide your children with an education that gives them a strong foundation in STEM.

STEM allows us to understand how the world around us functions. Whether it be knowing the inner workings of a car engine or how to fix a washing machine, STEM education provides children with knowledge to engage with technology around them. In all my teaching experience, I have never met anyone who says that they wish they had studied LESS in school. It’s the opposite – everyone wishes they had studied more, and I think we should let that motivate us when considering our children’s education.

Addressing the Challenges of Teaching STEM Through Engaging and Relating

Teaching STEM concepts isn’t always easy. It can be challenging to demonstrate to students how something that can be difficult to learn will make a difference in their life down the road.  Another barrier often faced is teaching rote memorization of STEM fundamentals that can seem monotonous and uninteresting.

In my experience, both as a NASA astronaut instructor and physics educator, there are two elements of teaching that helps overcome these challenges—engaging and relating to your audience.

The most important aspect of engaging students is giving them opportunities to apply what they’ve learned. A vital part of education is having students go back and analyze why their experiments did or didn’t work. At iFLY, I teach about the engineering behind the air tunnel and how aerodynamics affect a person’s ability to fly. Students are then able to put into practice what they’ve learned about wind speed and velocity as they fly in the tunnel; they change their body positioning to see how it impacts their flying. For the older students, we calculate the wind speed necessary for them to fly. We also work to establish the importance of what is being taught within the context of the future. For example, I talk about my experience with NASA, my astronaut training, and how STEM education played a role in my commitment to school. These things make for a physics lesson that sticks, versus a list of facts students are required to memorize.

The ability to relate is crucial for any teacher (or adult) who wants to garner better participation and learning for his or her students. One of the best ways to relate, that I have found, is by speaking in my students’ language and adjusting my material to meet their needs.

At iFLY, we adjust the presentation based on age level. For example, instead of having students in lower grades perform math calculations related to the wind tunnel, they design parachutes. They then change one variable about their parachute and record how it impacts the flight.

Expecting second-graders to understand and apply Newton’s laws isn’t realistic—nor is it fun for them.  When looking for STEM educational opportunities for your children, look for instructors who engage and relate to their students to make the experience worthwhile.

Business and Education Together

Local partnerships between businesses and schools are a great way to bring STEM to real life for students. At iFLY, the STEM program partners with local schools and brings groups of kids to the tunnel to learn about the physics of flying. We give students a presentation on the STEM elements of flight and then give them the chance to apply it in the tunnel. Coming to iFLY also allows students to see what kinds of opportunities are available through STEM learning.

Businesses and education can work together to demonstrate the interesting and exciting things that can be accomplished through studying STEM topics. These partnerships can take many forms including job-shadow opportunities, class field trips to tech and science businesses, and mentorship programs. Consider these options for your children to open their eyes to the exciting opportunities STEM offers.

The common denominator in all these partnerships is the experiential factor. Bringing students out of the classroom and into the real world allows for applied learning that will create a lasting impression.