National Science Foundation Touts ‘Everyday’ STEM Learning Opportunities

By Benjamin Herold — August 06, 2019 3 min read
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Foldable paper microscopes? A tabletop card game about killer snails? Interactive design games for kids?

They’re all great end-of-summer activities to get kids thinking again about science, technology, engineering, and math, according to the National Science Foundation.

“It’s about that everyday learning around the dinner table or walking down the street, with things we encounter and have the opportunity to explore and understand,” said program director Julie Johnson, the NSF’s lead on efforts to advance informal STEM learning in contexts other than school.

On Monday, the NSF published a blog post highlighting a range of tools, games, activities and public television shows it has supported, all of which Johnson said can be considered “informal learning resources” that “promise self-exploration and choice.” While each is different in how it aims to promote learning, all share a focus on helping all children build the belief that they can become effective scientists.

“Not everybody has the same exposure [to STEM learning] inside the schooling system,” Johnson said. “These other avenues for learning become really important for kids to engage in the questions, ‘Can I see myself doing this?’ and ‘Can I see myself being successful?’”

Some of the NSF-supported tools and ideas are likely quite familiar to the public education crowd. The kid-friendly coding environments Scratch and Scratch Jr., for example, are staples in many K-12 computer science programs. And PBS Kids shows like Cyberchase, Design Squad, and Sci Girls—each of which also features interactive online games and activities—are popular with many younger children and tweens.

What many educators may not know, however, is how the federal government gives big time to help make such resources possible. In fiscal year 2019, for example, the NSF’s budget for the Advanced Informal STEM Learning program was $65 million, which includes both production/development funds and money to support research into whether the tools being supported actually promote children’s development.

“It’s important that people understand that their tax dollars go to efforts to help understand more not just about space or the oceans or climate, but also what makes for good learning activities,” Johnson said.

In the case of a show like PBS’s Sci Girls, that might mean funding evaluation studies, as well as efforts to extend TV episodes into other formats, such as learning apps and in-person after-school clubs hosted at libraries and museums.

The NSF also supports many lesser-known STEM resources that are used offline, Johnson said.

Foldscopes, for example, are origami microscopes that weigh less than 10 grams and cost roughly $1 to produce but provide the magnification power of your standard classroom microscope. This video from the company gives a pretty compelling look at how excited kids can get about the small stuff beneath the surface of everyday life.

And then there’s Killer Snails, a Brooklyn-based small business that makes tabletop games like ‘Assassins of the Sea.” Using a deck of cards and small cardboard squares representing peptides (or short chains of amino acids), players assume the role of scientists who must collect predatory marine snails that possess a potent venom that real-life scientists believe might hold the key to eventually producing life-saving drugs. Killer Snails’ team, which includes a practicing marine biochemist and an education psychologist, seeks to merge scientific accuracy, learning science, and fun to get kids thinking like real scientists, working on real-world problems.

“It comes back to giving kids different opportunities to explore learning in different ways,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say there’s one magic bullet. It’s about the panoply of opportunities.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.