By Dave Sebastian,
For many years, fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have been closely associated with masculinity. In Silicon Valley, women are represented by a mere 37 percent of all workers in entry-level positions, while the number of women holding top-management positions amount to a dismal 13 percent, according to a March 2016 McKinsey report.
Amid the digital era, STEM-related expertise is in high demand. Engineering graduates in 2016 can expect a salary of $64,891 —three percent more than last year’s — on an entry-level position, Time.com reported. But the jarring gender inequality in the technology industry has much deeper roots.
Even from early childhood, parents tend to classify toys along gender lines — building blocks for boys and dollhouses for girls for instance. Obvious but oft-unmentioned, this stereotyping of roles from an early age needs to cease. Indeed, parents have a large role to play by consciously taking the initiative to introduce STEM-related toys — from Lego blocks, abacuses, to mini electricity kits — to both young girls and boys.
Here are a few benefits of introducing STEM-related toys to children, regardless of their gender:
Encouraging critical thinking
One does not master math and the sciences only by reading and listening; concrete numerical problems need to be solved for full comprehension. STEM-related toys encourage independent, active learning and can better prepare children toward STEM-related subjects in formal academic institutions. Simple building blocks, for instance, prompts “a terrific amount of problem solving … and also mathematical thinking,” said education researcher Jeffrey Trawick-Smith to the New Yorker.
Developing social skills
Contrary to the notion that STEM subjects are “individualistic,” immersing children into STEM-related play activities can actually encourage collaborative skills. Robotics class, for example, introduces children to teamwork and fosters a sense of belonging and respect toward others’ opinions. Barbara Bratzel, a robotics instructor at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said robotics emphasizes practical training besides merely listening to teachers’ guidance. “It’s such an engaging and powerful way of teaching that the kids learn the stuff better,” Bratzel said to The Boston Globe. “It gives them ownership of concepts in a way they don’t get from traditional classrooms.”
Paving the career path
While one need not necessarily become an engineer after engaging in STEM activities, giving children an early perspective to this career brings no harm. Engineers themselves also approve of how children’s predilection for STEM-related toys can lead to a fonder interest in engineering, according to Purdue University professor Monica Cardella. “The building and construction toys in particular can help children develop skills and understanding of concepts that are important for engineering,” said Cardella, “[such as] spatial reasoning skills, understanding of material properties and a process of designing things that either meet a user’s needs or solve a problem.”
The importance of STEM education will continue to grow as we enter towards a world increasingly built upon technology. A few simple STEM toys and activities that parents have their children engage in today could have a profound impact on our shared future.