The Smartest Summer Ever: Full STEAM ahead!

Originally posted by Eisa Ulen Richardson on August 21, 2013 for The Washington Post.

If you’ve been following this series on summer learning, you know there are many things your child can do now in order to step confidently into a new school year this September. As kids look forward to those shorter, crisper days, parents can still do more than buy supplies. When the first school bell rings, one initiative teachers across subject areas will likely launch, and that you can prepare your child for now, is STEM, or STEAM. But First, a Little History.

In order to sound a call for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics innovators, The National Science Foundation began to popularize use of the acronym STEM in the 1990s. In 2007, President George W. Bush signed the America COMPETES Act (America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act) with an education provision to help train the next generation of STEM-related professionals. The House reauthorized America COMPETES in 2010, and President Barack Obama signed it into law in 2011. With “Race to the Top”, Obama has also called for a renewed focus on STEM learning in America’s schools.

The term STEAM, which incorporates art in the STEM initiative, was popularized by Harvey White, a technology business leader who co-founded QUALCOMM and also founded Leap Wireless International. Alarmed that the United States no longer ranked 1st on lists of the world’s most innovative economies, White sounded a fresh call for creativity along with traditional STEM areas in American schooling. In 2010, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers requested a study to find out if the humanities and social sciences are as important as STEM to the nation’s future. In June of this year, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report, called “The Heart of the Matter,” which concludes that the United States must boost both to remain competitive in a global economy.Certainly art is what makes life worth living. We must push art for the sake of art. But even if adults pushed art for the sake of math, kids need it. Research shows that learning to play a musical instrument improves math skills, dance class improves spatial relationships, rhythm and rhyme through song can enhance both math and science skills. A more perfect education develops the whole child, with ample opportunities to dance and diagram, paint and investigate, sing and study all year long.Your child’s school might just push a STEAM initiative this school year. Even if it doesn’t, positioning your child to compete in STEM fields is smart. Right now, STEM workers earn 26 percent more than non-STEM workers. They are also less likely to experience joblessness, with one STEM worker for every 2 available, unfilled STEM-related jobs. The White House projects that STEM occupations will grow 17 percent over the next decade, while non-STEM occupations are expected to grow less than 10 percent over the same period.Manipulating MathYou already know summer provided great opportunities to deepen your child’s understanding of the STEAM areas of learning. Selling lemonade, making and flying a kite, chasing dragonflies, growing butterflies, even making mud pies – all these summer pleasures help grow your child’s brain and help give her STEAM skills to power learning. You also know your child needs to do, not drill, to develop deeper learning. Simply memorizing facts activates the lower regions of the brain – and can also lead to increased frustration as your child never really “gets it” (whatever subject “it” is) in class.“For young children, toys and other experiences that don’t always seem related to math and science are far more important than early ‘learning’ software, workbooks, and other commercial programs that try to push elementary school math down onto younger children,” says Your Child’s Growing Mind author Jane M. Healy, Ph.D. Instead of popping an educational CD into your computer, go to and learn how to use it to build a hovercraft with your child. As the weather cools and your young learner heads indoors, large blocks, magnets, mechanical building toys, and age-appropriate carpentry tools work as well as the mud, sand, clay, and water that have been building your child’s brain all summer. You and your child can also classify the autumn leaves you discover outdoors. Make a bar graph by coloring a square for every leaf you find. Use brown for maple, orange for oak, and so on. Talk about shapes and symmetry, differences and likenesses, as you sit at the kitchen table and develop your child’s visual organization skills.


Older children, Healy adds, also learn more from doing than from drilling. While repetitive practice is important, your future engineer, physicist, or neurosurgeon needs to see how technology comes apart to truly begin to understand how all those parts work together. Dismantling your old laptop will do more to prepare your child for a future in technology than time spent playing with educational apps on the new tablet you bought to replace it. The next time you upgrade your phone or game system, ply the old appliance apart, peer inside, and picture how it operated. If you do go online, instead of looking for age-appropriate drill, prompt inquiry: “What is html code and how does it underpin much of your web surfing? How are batteries – in your iPod, in your toothbrush – becoming smaller and more durable? What is the chemistry behind today’s batteries and the ones that we hope will drive us toward a greener future?”

These are the kinds of questions Jonathan Stevens wants you to ask. The Senior Director of Global Strategy and Innovation at Family Matters of Greater Washington, Stevens has a BS in Biochemistry and an MPH in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Prior to moving to D.C., Stevens worked as a math teacher and curriculum coordinator at the Boston Renaissance Charter School. He says asking these questions will do more for your teenager’s understanding of technology than knowing what the latest cool apps are.

Rap, Rock, and ‘Rithmetic

Stevens used inquiry and art to develop math skills in his middle schoolers, a mix of mostly black, but some Latino, Asian, and White students, more than 80 percent of whom, he says, received free or reduced school lunches. Too many of his students found Stevens’ math class “confusing, irrelevant, and at times, yawn-inducing.” With the art teacher next door, Stevens began to co-plan his lessons to integrate art and architecture into the math curriculum. From his 13th floor classroom in the old UMass Boston building, Stevens began to point out patterns, shapes, and geometric relationships in the cityscape all around. The art teacher “started using the precision of math,” Stevens says, “in his lessons on painting, sculpture, and art history.”

Like Stevens, parents can use local architecture to spark discussions about shape and structure. From a preschooler identifying columns, domes, and arches to an older child researching the ways these shapes work together to keep a building from collapsing, D.C. offers ample opportunities to ask the right questions, like “Why does my tower of blocks fall down but the Washington Monument doesn’t?”, to develop STEAM skills.

In addition to architecture, Stevens began using Hip Hop to teach fractions and percentages. “I would use the rhythm, meter, and pace of the songs to break down mathematical concepts. In turn, the students, who would recite with precision the meter and pace of complex, layered songs, didn’t realize they were taking part in a mathematical exercise each time they sang along to a song.” Luckily, for those of us who struggle with math anxiety, simply learning music, singing, and playing hand-clapping songs, without using it to develop math skills as Stevens did, is enough to benefit STEAM learners.

Bedtime Math

Stevens cautions parents against passing their math anxiety unto their own children. “A common irritation among math and science teachers is to hear parents say – ‘I hate math,’ or ‘I don’t know anything about science.’ Not only is this not true – math and science are all around you – it is counterproductive. It’s OK to be unsure of your math and science abilities, but don’t pass the fear and loathing of an incredibly important subject on to your child. You don’t really hear someone say, ‘I hate language,’ probably because they see the direct effects of its use every day, no matter what their educational level.”

One simple way to get started with STEAM is to go to to share a fun, age-appropriate math problem with your child every night. Laura Bilodeau Overdeck, a parent with a BA in astrophysics and an MBA, created Bedtime Math because she is convinced that even mammas and daddies without degrees in STEAM fields can develop a love for science, technology, engineering, art, and math in their own kids.

And you can.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is math-averse but struggling mightily to overcome this impediment with the help of her numbers-loving husband as they raise their 4 year old son to have the skills to be… whatever he wants to be. @EisaUlen