By Mary Simon, RAFT Founder and Executive Director
Observing a small group of third graders learning math years ago, I was struck by their genuine engagement and curiosity using bottle caps, pipe cleaners, and other objects presented to them by their teacher to learn basic math concepts. Somehow these future mathematicians, astrophysicists, chemical engineers, and fifth grade teachers not only easily and quickly took to hands-on learning styles, but were also building a strong foundation for future success in STEM-based education. I recall thinking then, ‘if these budding young learners are so enthusiastically benefiting from hands-on lessons, imagine how many more students could also be inspired.’ While this was more than 20 years ago, today my observances still hold true. In fact, they couldn’t be more true: hands-on and project-based learning activities are integral to the new Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards which the majority of our nation’s educators will use to help students develop 21st Century skills.
This April in Washington DC, a USA science and Engineering Festival will be presented for free to the public where 225,000 are expected to come and participate in discussions, exhibitions, and workshops on STEM-related curriculum for students, educators, scholars, and parents. The event is a reminder of both the growing interest and the value of STEM education. The importance of STEM education cannot be denied, and it is an exciting time for educators who have many more opportunities to help our children attain the crucial skills needed today in order to guarantee their success in the future.
There are thousands of STEM education programs nationwide, but also an estimated 73.9 million youth in the United States today. This means there are many more children and teens that could benefit from exposure to these important programs than there are STEM programs available. Not every child is getting the opportunities they desperately need in this area. Furthermore, even for those children who are exposed, their exposure may come much later in their educational journey when its impact on their academic choices is less influential. My strong feeling is that the stakes are high: digital technology continues to define how our society communicates and engages with each other in all facets of our lives, yet many of the 73.9 million youth aren’t receiving the level of educational experiences necessary to become highly skilled men and women capable of developing the next generation of technological and scientific innovation and growth. This dilemma was the genesis of a mission to bring low cost resources to teachers to address the need.
I manage an education resource organization in the heart of Silicon Valley along with a wonderful community of entrepreneurial adults, innovative technology leaders, and of course, children. In this community are a host of dedicated teachers, mentors, and educators. I have been delighted to work very closely with our communities’ educators since 1994, providing them with engaging teaching materials and affordable learning activities in support of hands-on education. Most of our community’s schools, and schools well beyond the Valley borders, share a concern for STEM education readiness and preparedness and have adopted an array of hands-on teaching lessons since our organization first produced them.
It has been an extraordinary experience watching our educational organization support teachers and educators who work for public, private, or from home-based schools plus out-of-school teaching environments by providing resources that help children attain critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration skills. In fact, we’ve developed more than 700 Idea Sheets which we offer for free online to give quick instructions for teachers and educators to use their own materials and teach hands-on activities. Any of these educational institutions would attest that the focus of the hands-on activities has helped elicit from children a valuable ability to focus on the process that led to discovering the answers to problems, a quality that has been proven to be essential to understanding complex concepts.
As I wind down my leadership at RAFT this year, I’m confident that more California schools, parents, and educators understand and embrace the varieties of ways in which children learn, but I also hope communities across the country will do the same.
There’s no doubt that it has been an extraordinary development observing each of the local educational communities provide students with skills that foster success in their educational and professional careers. In fact, it’s a fascinating process to watch unfold when children learn from tinkering with any array of objects…Just ask any third-grader.