By Janice Lao
(Editor’s note: Janice Lao, the only Filipina scientist featured in American children’s book “Everyday Superheroes: Women in STEM Careers,” shares these eight steps to raising lovers of science and math.)
Apart from the colors of our eyes, hair, or skin, everything else in life is learned, earned, and gained.
There are many things we can teach our kids to help them live their best lives and adapt to the changing landscape of the world. Learning their inclinations or choosing a field they like does not have to wait until they’re about to enter college. If we begin to instill curiosity about the world and how it works, their love of learning will develop, especially if we help them start asking the right questions.
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) get all the credit in university majors and the fields young professionals choose to work in. But if we want our children to take interest in them, we need to instill these subjects in our daily interactions and lessons learned, and early in their lives too.
Think about how your life, job, and hobbies relate to science and math. Kids can tell when you truly love something and they feed off that energy. Once they see how much science and math is in your daily life, they will see it in their own life as well. For example, if you love to cook, think about what you love about it—is it in the mixing of ingredients (chemistry) or following a recipe (math), or decorating (chemistry and physics) to create something that appeals to the five senses (your own invention!) Then share that love and enthusiasm with your kids.
You may have a child that loves to dance, draw, or play computer games. Everything has a connection to science and math. My daughter loves the arts, so when I first started to introduce science or math to her, we used colors and shapes. I would explain to her the “magic of colors” (chemistry) by mixing yellow and blue to make green. And if she wanted to make it a darker shade of green she could use more of blue (math).
When my kids, 9-year-old Esther and 7-year-old Isaac, started to play computer games, I asked them, do you want to make your own game? And they were intrigued and this was how I got them into coding (even if I myself knew nothing about coding). Leverage the activities they love to a science or math concept so it becomes real and relatable to them.
Choose and deduce
A friend introduced me to the concept of “growth mindset.” It is basically a “can do” attitude to everything if we are willing to learn and put in the effort and time required. It highlights the power of the word “yet.” For example, instead of saying “I cannot do addition,” it becomes “I cannot do addition YET”—the yet shows a willingness to learn. This not only relates to your kids but also to you as a parent. If you yourself are afraid of math and refuse to teach it to your kid, you need to overcome that fear too. You need to encourage yourself, in the same way you need to encourage your child. I usually suggest parents to learn about math in their own way using apps like “Khan Academy.” Don’t spoon feed them information, instead encourage them through your words, your questions, and your actions. An encouraging mindset will stay with them as much as a discouraging one does. Decide on a positive perspective and choose your words wisely. They stick.
You cannot be good at math or science in one go. It takes constant practice and a willingness to embrace failure, to be excellent at something.
Even grocery shopping can turn into practice time. When my son was learning how to add and subtract, when we would go out to a mall or a grocery and he wanted to buy candies or toys, I would ask him to compute the amount and ask, “I will give you 100 pesos to buy candies, how many candies can you buy with that money? And would you still have some left to buy your toy? If not, how much money would you need to buy that toy? Would you have that additional money needed by next week?” It teaches independence, decision making, patience, and perseverance.
My husband Mike and I do go on learning adventures with the kids every weekend or while on holiday. Some are as simple as going to the park and playing on the swing which allows us to explain the idea of oscillation and frequency, which is the foundation of energy and electricity. Physics!
While both concepts are quite complicated to explain at face value, we use these experiments to show that if they are willing to observe, complicated topics actually start from something quite simple, instead of taking a car to the park, we walk by using the time and the effort to teach them how to use a compass and learn how it works.
Bring your kids to explore museums and nature instead of malls, there is so much to learn around you and it usually does not cost any money.
When I was nurturing my own love for science and math, I found that the greatest examples of it could be found in nature and in ourselves. You can’t help but ask, “Well, who made this? And how did they even think of elegantly designing nature this way!” It connects you to a creator or a power greater than yourself. I am Catholic and being a science and math fan, ultimately made me love nature more and become more appreciative of my God’s creations.
Appreciating nature does not cost money. Just go out in a park or a garden or look up in the sky and ask your kids: “What are clouds made of?” or “Why can a dog walk on his four legs, while we only have two?” Everyday is an opportunity to show them how awesome nature is and learn about some of the world’s most amazing inventions—nature and even, ourselves.
Raise problem solvers and creators
On their own, science and math are not going to solve the problems of the world; people doing something about it will.
We should teach science math beyond just memorizing and passing exams. We need to unlock their uses and mysteries for our kids so they can truly appreciate the genius behind them and use them for good. One way to do this is by instilling to our kids an attitude to solving not only their problems but others as well. We need the generation of the future to develop critical thinking and create solutions.
Give and take
We must give what we can and share our expertise in order to improve the world and help others. Whether this is through a business, a non-profit, or daily action, we were given talents so we can all flourish no matter what age.
When my kids were visiting the streets of Manila for the first time, they were surprised to see so many children their age on the streets, some with no clothes on. They asked me, “Why don’t they have clothes on?” And it started a conversation about the complicated nature of poverty.
Instead of saying, “You are lucky, and you should be grateful,” we would ask them, “How do you think you can help today and in the future?” and you’ll be surprised at the things kids say. My favorite answer so far from my son is, “Mommy, one day I will invent something and I will teach their parents how to make it and I will pay them well so they can take care of their kids.”
I want my kids to understand that we all have a responsibility to take care of each other and that it starts with each one of us. There is no us against them, we are all in this world together.
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