How to Encourage Your Child's Interest in Science and Tech

This week’s Ask-A-Data-Scientist column is from a parent on how to encourage their child in STEAM. Please email your data science related quandaries to rachel@fast.ai. Previous posts include:

Q: My daughter loves math and art. She’s currently an 8th grader. My husband and I are not STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) people. I’d love to expose her to possible career options but am limited by my ignorance and perhaps my location. Do you have any suggestions for an intelligent, young person who is about to start her high school journey?

A: First, I am so glad you are encouraging your daughter’s interests! I have several recommendations and resources. This is a fantastic time in history to be a kid with an internet connection interested in math and art.

1. She should learn to code. In STEM, code is the language of creativity, and without knowing how to code, you are reliant on tools created by others. A good place to start is with blockly games, which teaches programming concepts (such as loops, variables, and logic) though a variety of mazes and puzzles. Blockly library was developed by the Google for Education team.

As for programming, I recommend that she start by learning JavaScript with Khan Academy’s Intro Javascript: Drawing & Animation and then move on to Advanced JavaScript: Games and Visualizations. Khan Academy has a great interface in which the code editor and picture show up side by side, and you can instantly see how the picture changes as you change the code.

Anyone who knows me may be suprised that I’m recommending Javascript first, since I didn’t learn it until just a few years ago and it’s never been the primary language I use. My reasons are this: Javascript is interactive, visual, and the language of the web. It is the best language for creating things that will interest her non-coder friends. Anytime you make an action on a website (such as clicking a button or moving your mouse) and something happens (an image changes, you go to a new page, new text appears) you have Javascript to thank for that. Note: JS is not just for web; it can also be used for mobile, backend, and embedded devices, so basically everything.

I really like that Khan Academy introduces Javascript through the applications of drawing and visualizations. My introduction to coding was a high school C++ course almost 20 years ago, where one of our first assignments was to print out credit card balances by month, varying based on what size payments were made and the interest rate. I still remember how delighted I was watching the table of numbers print to the terminal, but there are far more engaging intros now.

A note for parents of younger children: you might want to check out scratch (language for children developed by MIT Media Lab), snap (drag-and-drop programming language), or snap circuits (electronics kits).

2. The videos of 3 Blue 1 Brown have gorgeous visuals, and are well suited to visual thinkers and anyone that enjoys art and patterns. They are a fairly different perspective on math, and one I’d like to see more of. When watching them, don’t stress about understanding every concept, but try to just enjoy the beatuy. The video on the surprising relationship between binary/ternary counting, the Towers of Hanoi puzzle, and Sierpinski’s triangle may be a fun place to start.

Vi Hart’s Doodling in Math Class is also a fun and fantastic series.

3. A ton of exciting advances are happening in the maker space– people creating clothing that lights up, machines that 3d print pancakes, robots to move your Klein bottle collection around– and there are lots of resources available for all ages. Maker spaces are being added in libraries across the country, and can include anything from 3D Printers, littleBits, LEGO Robotics, Arduinos, Snap Circuits, design software, woodworking tools, jewelry making tools, paper crafting equipment, microscopes and other science gadgets, sewing machines, and more, and many offer workshops or classes. You can also see if there is a regional Maker Faire in your area.

Two of my favorite adult examples: I was in the audience when Kassandra Perch gave a delightful demo during her keynote at ForwardJS, a Javascript conference. She was wearing a belt covered in patterns of light and instructed the audience to tweet colors at her, and those colors were then displayed on the belt (from minutes 12-16 in this video– don’t be intimidated by the amount of code she shows, there are simpler light projects which require less code).

One of the students from our fast.ai course bought several tons of legos on ebay and constructed a machine to automatically sort the legos (old bulk lego is sold more cheaply, but the resale value for sorted Lego is much higher and can be quite lucrative for certain pieces). I want children to know that adults do things like create interactive colorful light-up clothing for the keynote speech at a professional conference, or construct machines to sort Legos in their free time. Both of these examples are by experts, but you do not need to be an expert to work with hardware or program an arduino.

4. Encourage her to start a blog about what she is learning, creating, and exploring. I recently wrote a post (inspired by a question from a college student) encouraging everyone to blog, and I think the advice certainly holds for high schoolers. Many schools relegate writing to the humanities and social sciences, and don’t give students the practice of writing about math and technology. Being able to write and communicate technical ideas clearly is a super important and useful skill in today’s world (art can help with this too!). As I said previously, a blog is like a resume, only better. This holds true for high school students as well, and could be useful in landing internships. Check out this post for tips on how to get started.

You can checkout the zines by Amy W (an MIT computer science grad who hacks knitting machines) or Julia Evans (an infrastructure engineer at credit processing startup Stripe) for great examples of how cartoons and sketches can illuminate technical concepts. They are also two women I deeply admire!

5. As for profiles of possible careers, Khan Academy has a series of career profiles.

Fast.ai students are using math and coding in a wide variety of interesting and meaningful ways such as: listening for chainsaw noises in endangered rainforests with recycled cell phones, diagnosing malaria in under-staffed Ugandan clinics, and reducing suicides of farmers in India.

6. Miscellaneous Groups and Resources. Although these are location specific, note that groups exist in a wide variety of places, not just in major tech hubs like San Francisco or New York City:

7. There is a lovely essay called A Mathematician’s Lament written by Paul Lockhart, a former Brown University math professor who quit to teach K-12. He describes a nightmare world in which children are not allowed to sing songs or play instruments until they have spent over a decade studying music notation, transcribing sheet music by hand in different keys, and memorizing their circle of fifths. That sounds horrifying! Yet it is how math is taught in most schools– the focus is on dry notation, formal rules, memorization, and disconnected components, with the fun and creative parts saved until long after most students have dropped out.

I hope you can encourage your child to keep a sense of creativity, beauty, pattern, and play when approaching math. I know it can be difficult for children to maintain their curiosity and passion for subjects when adults or peers don’t understand their interests.

My daughter is still a toddler, so I haven’t gotten to experience this firsthand yet and I would love to hear from those of you who have! Also, a huge thanks to everyone who gave me suggestions for this article on Twitter.


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