Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was not unusual to find microscopes, chemistry sets, Erector sets, DIY radio kits, and the like wrapped as presents under the Christmas tree. You might call them ChriSTEMas gifts. America was exuberant about the future. Baby Boomers were in the early years of their education and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers were viewed as exciting fields of endeavor. “Meet Mr. Wizard” was a popular Saturday morning television show touting the joys of science. America again finds itself in a world in which STEM skills are sorely needed. To excite the next generation of students about studying STEM subjects, consider giving them a ChriSTEMas gift this year. Julie Evans explains, “When it comes to education, STEM learning is a major push these days. The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and it applies to learning and activities that focus on logic, problem-solving, creativity and experimentation. Fortunately, those skills are often best developed and nurtured through play, and there are plenty of STEM toys on the market focused on doing just that.”
I agree that crucial STEM skills can be developed through hands-on activities. That is why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness. Our goal is to help introduce new ways of getting students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math by supporting extra-curricular activities that involve students in solving real-world problems using skills they learned in the classroom. I also understand, however, that support at home is also critical. Below I will highlight a few recommended ChriSTEMas gifts, but if you want to go looking on your own, Kevin Kelly (@), founding Executive Editor of Wired magazine, has a recommendation. He writes, “For my tastes, the best holiday gift guide is the annual catalog of cool books, games, toys, and diy tools put together by The Kid Should See This website. Ordinarily the site hosts the best video clips your kids should see, but during the holidays they compile this long and annotated list of cool stuff that is aimed at active kids, but also works for adults with young minds.”
Pre-school ChriSTEMas Gifts
Fisher-Price Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar Toy ($50). Ever thought about teaching your pre-schooler how to code? Evans writes, “For the preschool set, this cute and colorful code-a-pillar will pull kids in with fun and teach them a thing or two along the way. It comes with one motorized head that blinks, lights up and makes fun sounds as well as eight segments that make it perform a variety of motions depending on which way the segments are connected. Once they get the hang of it, there are targets kids can try to make the caterpillar reach by combining the segments correctly. It’s all about trial and error, which is what STEM is all about. Designed for kids ages three to eight, it’s a great way to introduce problem-solving and coding skills from a young age. Plus, it’s just a whole lot of fun for everyone.”
Gears! Gears! Gears! ($35) Courtney Schley writes, “Gears! Gears! Gears! Is basically what you’d guess: a big box of colored gears that snap together with axles and extenders to create complex, moveable structures. The challenge is figuring out how to align and order the gears so they’ll all turn in unison and not get jammed up. Wirecutter writer Chris Heinonen says his 4-year-old and 6-year-old have the gears set in their room and build with it all the time. ‘Lots of the time it’s just seeing how large of a thing they can build and still have all the gears turn.’ Wirecutter editor Harry Sawyers has a set as well, and his 2- and 4-year-old enjoy it together. He adds one caveat: ‘It’s pretty loud, especially on bigger projects, so keep that in mind if you have a baby or another kid sleeping nearby.'”
Primary School ChriSTEMas Gifts
SmartGurlz Siggy Scooter with Doll ($80). Getting more females into STEM fields is essential. Mary Giles and Marisa LaScala suggest this toy might be just the thing your daughter needs to spark her interest in STEM. They write, “The self-balancing Siggy Scooter comes with one of four sassy, STEM-loving SmartGurlz dolls; other dolls are sold separately. Your real-life girl can read an e-book to learn more about the doll’s interests, then download the SmartGurlz app and use drag-and-drop programming to drive Siggy, solve coding-based missions, and play games.”
Thames & Kosmos Mechanical Engineering Robotic Arms ($50). There is a lot of concern about the future of work as robots and automation assume more tasks once performed by humans. You can help prepare your child for this bold, new robotic future by getting them interested in robotics. This set allows your child to learn how robotic machines perform work by building six different robotic arms. Special pneumatic system uses air pressure to power the models. Includes 32-page, illustrated experiment manual and assembly guide.
Secondary School ChriSTEMas Gifts
Prime Climb ($30). The folks at Kids Should See This write, “If you’re looking for a smart game that gets kids (and adults) comfortable with and excited about numbers and math, the award-winning Prime Climb by Math For Love is a great option. Roll the dice and then use addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division to get your pawns to 101 first. Prime numbers, common multiples, factors, patterns, and strategy are all a part of this game, and the color coded board helps players of all ages learn. Excellent for school or family game night.”
XYZ da Vinci Jr. 1.0 3D Printer ($200). Additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) is another technology poised to change the world. The staff at Stem Toy Expert writes, “3D printers have the potential to revolutionize the way we live our lives. Imagine being able to simply download designs and print everyday household goods from the comfort of your own home! Unfortunately, up until relatively recently a lot of commercially available 3D printers were expensive and often had lots of faults. However, in the past couple of years we have seen a wave of budget, decent quality printers hit the market. So we’ve decided to include them as one of our best STEM toys for teens in 2017. XYZprinting are a company who offer range entry-level 3D printers that require little setup. The da Vinci Jr. 1.0 is one of their entry-level machines, but still provides printing resolution of 100-400 microns. … What’s more, the easy to use XYZmaker software is designed for beginners. With the help of online step-by-step tutorials, you can use the software’s model library and range of tools to create 3D designs. Furthermore, you also have access to the XYZprinting Gallery where you can download thousands of free 3D models ranging from tools to toys to smart phone accessories! It’s great for creative exploration, which is why we recommend it as one of the best STEM toys for teens.”
Experts predict our children will be filling jobs that don’t currently exist. The best way we can help them prepare for the future is to spark their curiosity and help them develop skills that will be useful regardless of what job they may pursue in the years ahead. STEM toys are a good way to motivate them to become lifelong learners. For more exciting tech toys, check out Michael Irving’s recommendations.
 Julie Evans, “The 7 Best STEM Toys to Buy in 2017,” The Spruce, 10 November 2017.
 Courtney Schley, “Learning Toys and STEM Toys We Love,” Wirecutter, 13 November 2017.
 Mary Giles and Marisa LaScala, “The 17 Best STEM Toys That Teach Kids to Code (for Toddlers to Teens),” Working Mother, 5 June 2017.
 Staff, “The Top 5 Best STEM Toys for Teens 2017 | Coding, Robotics, Science,” Stem Toy Expert, 23 May 2017.