The last thing your child may think he or she wants for Christmas is an educational toy. In many cases, they won’t know that a toy is educational if you don’t tell them. But Elizabeth Gajdzik, Assistant Director of Purdue’s INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering, doesn’t think keeping your kids in the dark is a good idea. “A lot of the toys don’t even have the word engineering anywhere on them,” she states, “so assisting them and telling them, ‘Hey this one does promote engineering thinking,’ as well as providing research that allows them to take toys they might already have in their home, and make them even better and to introduce engineering STEM concepts.” STEM, of course, stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. She adds, “I think that really helps them out and takes away that guessing game.” Cluing your kids in about the educational value of a toy also does one other important thing — it gets you involved with your child in educational activities. Parental involvement is one the best ways to help a child succeed in their educational pursuits. Samantha Thieke reports (@sam_thieke) that INSPIRE has put together its second annual Engineering Gift Guide that contains “more than 50 toys and application suggestions intended to engage girls and boys as young as age three in engineering thinking and design. The guide also has a list of 30 books with stories and facts about engineering. INSPIRE Director Monica Cardella said the toys range from the more traditional and well-known to more high-tech toys, but all promote STEM education.”
Cardella told Thieke, “Tapping into things that children are already good at, while at the same time bringing in more problem solving skills that hopefully will just lead to a lifetime of engaging in critical problem solving.” I’m a big fan of learning problem-solving skills through hands-on projects. That’s why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools near where we live. We firmly believe that by showing students how STEM subjects can help them solve real-world problems they will begin to appreciate the opportunities that STEM skills open for them. But they can also learn through fun activities at home. INSPIRE has outlined how you can help your children identify a problem and solve it.
- Define the problem. Identify an engineering design problem to solve. Set criteria (desired attributes) and constraints (limits). Recognize who the client (who has asked you to find a solution) and users are (who will use the end product).
- Learn about the problem. Research to see what, if any, solutions have already been created to solve the problem or one similar to it. Read different texts about the science and mathematics skills, knowledge and tools that will help them solve the problem.
- Plan a solution to the problem. Have them generate many ideas before deciding which one they would like to try. Encourage them to make a design plan. They may need to go back and learn something new before they can finish their plan. That is ok!
- Try the solution. Have them use their plan to create a prototype (a testable model that may be smaller or larger than the final design).
- Test the solution. Help your children conduct fair tests to see if their plan is a good solution for the problem. Decide Use the test results to make decisions about their solution. Did the solution solve the problem and meet the constraints? Should they try other ideas they previously brainstormed or brainstorm new ideas to achieve a better solution?
- Communicate/deliver. Have them make claims (use evidence to support what they believe is true) about their solution so the client knows why they should use or select it. Have them communicate their idea to the client.
Let’s be honest. How many of us are going to help our children identify an engineering problem that needs to be solved? That’s where the right toy might be able to help. Many educational toys have built-in problems and the tools required to solve them — and solve them in a fun way. For decades, the only hands-on, STEM-like toys available for kids were chemistry sets, microscopes with slides, Erector Sets, Tinker Toys, and Lincoln Logs. They are all still available, but they are joined by dozens of other fun STEM-related toys. INSPIRE isn’t the only organization offering STEM-related gift recommendations for the holidays. The Smithsonian Magazine also offers a selection of gifts for the “science nerd.” Below are some of my favorites.
- MudWatt Classic Science Kit — Electricity from Mud. This kit allows your child to build their own living fuel cell using the microbes found in mud! They will be able to maximize their power output through open-ended experimentation to power an LED light and digital clock. In additon, they can track their MudWatt’s bacteria population and power growth to unlock chapters of “The Electric Microbe” Comic Book with the free MudWatt Explorer App!
- DYI Lip Balm Kit. If your child isn’t really keen about playing with mud, perhaps lip balm would be more to their liking. This particular kit doesn’t really teach much chemistry; but, it’s an introduction and girl-friendly. This quick project is inexpensive and takes no more than an hour to complete. Simply melt the lip balm base, add your preferred flavor oil and natural sweetener, and pour your creation into four ready-made containers. The homemade natural lip balm includes natural ingredients that are safe and nontoxic, and meet strict California environmental safety standards. Lip balm has never been this fun before!
- Smithsonian Mega Science Lab. Your kids will know exactly what they are getting with this set — an exposure to different kinds of science. The Mega Science Lab is a science sampler that includes amazing adventures, safe and easy to do activities, and detailed instructions.
- Wonder Pack. On the pricier end of things is Wonder Pack that allows your children to experiment with robots and engineering. Dot is the brains of a robot. Dot comes with several games built in, such as Magic Dot Ball, Dot of Music, and Light Sword. Using free apps Wonder and Blockly, you get to make over a hundred more games with instructions in the apps. Dash is a real robot, charged and ready to play out of the box. Responding to voice, navigating objects, dancing, and singing, Dash is the robot you always dreamed of having. Use Wonder, Blockly, and other apps to create new behaviors for Dash — doing more with robotics than ever possible. No books or camps needed! The Wonder Pack offers the richest and biggest play experience by combining Dash & Dot with an Accessory Pack and the Xylophone pack. You are only limited by the power of your imagination!
The toys range from around $7 for the DYI lip balm kit to nearly $300 for the Wonder Pack. But there are lots of toys between those extremes with which your children (and you) can have hours of fun and learning. The holidays are a great time to get your children interested in STEM subjects.
 Samantha Thieke, “Gift guide inspires kid’s STEM skills,” WLFI, 26 November 2015.