By Jolene Gustafson
Did you struggle with science as a kid? Or maybe math was the subject that never quite added up. Whatever the reason, you’re not alone if the thought of helping your child with homework from STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fills you with trepidation.
Here’s a little secret that should be general knowledge: Not having the answer is the perfect place to start when it comes to learning STEM. That cluelessness you feel? It’s actually an asset. In fact, knowing the answers to your child’s homework questions could derail the very learning you want to occur.
The Power – and Process – of Asking Questions
Beyond the subject matter spelled out in the acronym, STEM is about educating youth to develop critical-thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving skills. In raising STEM to a priority in 2015, the U.S. Department of Education noted, “All young people should be prepared to think deeply and to think well so that they have the chance to become the innovators, educators, researchers, and leaders who can solve the most pressing challenges facing our nation and our world, both today and tomorrow.”
To truly help your child with STEM homework, you need to understand that the process of defining and asking the question is as important as the answer. It’s also vital to remember that answers change over time. Without scientists, technology creators, engineers, and mathematicians revisiting questions and seeking new answers, society would stagnate. Progress in all fields is driven by asking questions and “thinking like a scientist.”
As a parent and role model, the best thing you can do for your child is to embrace the fact that you don’t know the answer and be willing to say that to your child. There’s no shame in not knowing the answer – in fact, that’s where we all start when it comes to learning anything new. That’s an important message to send because it empowers children by focusing on the fact that they have the ability to learn.
The other important concept to model is that it’s always a good idea to double check your knowledge. You can do that by saying, “Even though I think I know the answer, let’s check.” It’s an especially smart strategy since there’s a good chance that new evidence, and possibly new understandings, have been added to the curriculum since you were in school. A great way to see how classroom science has changed in recent years is to check out the set of Parent Guides created by Next Generation Science Standards. Available in both English and Spanish, these guides detail how science activities and goals have changed. Each of the four guides (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12) also includes a bulleted list of what your child should have a deeper understanding of at the end of the grade range.
Investigating and Finding Answers
When the homework questions first come, make this your mantra: “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” You want to start the year by serving as a guide to where and how to find the answers. Then, as you settle into the homework routine, the goal is to start stepping back a bit, changing your response to “Hmmm. Where have you looked for the answer?” or “Can you show me what it is that you don’t understand?” In other words, your role should transition from guide to coach, fostering independence while being willing to help your child practice and perfect a skill.
So where should you look together for those answers? Introduce your child to the following resources, which she or he will soon be able to use independently.
- cK-12 (all grades) – This free website is run by a non-profit foundation devoted to increasing access worldwide to high-quality K-12 STEM education. There are more than 5,000 science, math, and engineering concepts explained. Content includes text, videos, simulations, exercises, study guides, flashcards, quizzes, and more. While you can use the site without an account, creating one allows you to set a custom dashboard with resources that align to grade and subjects. Younger kids will likely need your help using the site.
- BrainPOP Jr. (grades K-3) and BrainPOP (grades 4-8) – Some but not all of the content in this subscription website service is free. It’s worth asking at the start of your school year if your school has a subscription. If not, you can purchase a monthly or yearly Family Access pass. Math and science content is covered for all grades, with “technology” included in the K-3 service and “engineering and technology” in the 4-8 service. (Other areas of the curriculum are also covered.) The 300+ STEM topics have animated movies, quizzes, games, mobile apps, activity pages, and study tools. https://jr.brainpop.com/ and https://www.brainpop.com/
- How to Be Good at Math (grades 2-5) – This visual guide to elementary math concepts, published recently by DK Children, is designed for “reluctant mathematicians.” Like other guides from this publisher, colorful graphics and real-world examples are used to break down concepts into bite-size chunks. Sections include: basic numbers, calculations, measurement, geometry, statistics, and algebra. The inside covers have quick reference guides, including multiplication tables and grids, formulas for area and perimeter, and 2D and 3D shapes.
Scholastic’s Study Jams (grades 3-6) – This free website, from the educational division of the publishing company, has more than 200 math and science jams (units), each with a tween-friendly video or slide show overview. Key vocabulary definitions are a click away to help with understanding. Kids can then use the Test Yourself section to review the material – they’ll get a score and feedback after taking the multiple-choice quiz. http://studyjams.scholastic.com/studyjams/
- How to Be Good at Science, Technology, and Engineering (grades 4-7) – Drawing material from its How Things Work series, this book by DK Children uses dynamic illustrations to break down complex concepts into simple steps and understandings. The book begins with an introduction that explains the scientific method, engineering design process, and how new technologies make our life easier. All core areas of the science curriculum are covered, including physics, biology, chemistry, earth science, and space science.
VirtualNerd (middle and high school) – This former math subscription website by Pearson is now available for free. It offers more than 1,500 video lessons for “middle grades math through algebra.” What’s particularly helpful is that videos include links to “background tutorials,” allowing students to review the basics they need to have mastered before starting the new material. https://www.virtualnerd.com/
- Socratic (ages 13+) – You may want to keep this resource in your back pocket for moments when you get stuck, rather than sharing Socratic with your child. This free app, available in Google Play and the AppStore, is easy to use. Take a picture of your homework – or type in a question – and the app returns “answers, math solvers, explanations, and more.” Supported content includes algebra, calculus, statistics, chemistry, and physics. Since it could easily be used for homework shortcuts or cheating, use with caution.
Getting Additional Help
But what if your child is struggling and his or her grades, not to mention confidence, are taking a hit? That’s the time to bring in additional help. Again, this should be positioned as a positive step. Knowing what you need and how to advocate for it are incredibly useful skills to learn before you reach adulthood.
If you’re unclear of the root of the issue, talk with your child’s teacher. Are weak study skills interfering with learning? Or is the subject matter the problem? Once you know the type of help you need, reach out to the school. Some districts offer study skills classes or homework help sessions before or after school. These can be great solutions for bumps in the road.
However, if the issue is more systemic, consider hiring a tutor – someone who has the time and expertise to tailor strategies to address your child’s individual needs, not to mention learning style. In making a hiring decision, there are three key points to consider.
- Ask for references to establish credentials and a pattern of success.
- Make sure the tutor is a good fit for your child – the best tutors will want to meet with your child before committing. “Fit is always the most important point,” says Rachel Lipton, a STEM and test prep tutor with NoodlePros.
- Agree on your expectations at the outset. After the tutor has talked with you and your child, ask “What do you think is realistic?”