UD K-12 STEM education expert recommends holiday gifts

If your child’s holiday wish list includes a robot, consider this: The best robot toys are the ones that kids can tinker with.

“Kits often have prescriptive instructions, with one ‘solution’ to building,” said Melissa Jurist, academic program manager for UD K-12 Engineering. “Kids need to learn what the steps and materials mean and do. It’s like instead of painting by numbers, they get a set of paints and canvas.”

Look for a kit that teaches electronics and lets kids build from their imagination. For example, Jurist said the Little Bits Deluxe Kit  (also available at retailers such as Apple and Walmart) includes 20 pieces, giving kids ages 8 and up the flexibility to create.

Robot toys like these might inspire the next generation of engineers, and they’re not the only toys that can do that. Many toys can teach kids to be world-conscious problem solvers and have fun at the same time. That’s why Jurist created this holiday gift guide based on a few of the National Academy of Engineering’s “Grand Challenges” for the future.

“To ensure a healthy, safe, future for all people, we must inspire, encourage, and train the next generation of problem solvers,” said Babatunde Ogunnaike, dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2012.

First, and always most important, is safety, said Jurist.  Buy lab coats and kid-sized safety glasses that meet ANSI Z87.1 standards. And of course, an adult should supervise all activities.

Another rule of thumb: “I have said it before and will say it again: Anything messy is always a winner,” said Jurist.

Grand challenge: Provide Access to Clean Water

According to the World Health Organization, more than 844 million people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water, and by 2025, an estimated half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. Civil engineers, chemical engineers, materials science engineers and more are working on technologies to increase the supply of drinkable water, such as desalination and improved wastewater treatment.

Toys for aspiring engineers:  Kids can explore filtration, pipe connection and fluid dynamics with some fun materials and toys. For example, Jurist recommended a kit like the Elenco Edu-Toys Water Filtration Kit, which enables your tot to build a simple filtration system.

You can also make your own filters using 2-liter bottles, coffee filters, gravel, cotton balls, activated carbon (available at pet stores), feathers (available at craft stores) and your own choice of disgusting water “contaminants” (like chicken and stars soup, coffee grounds and confetti).  Have kids make “dirty water” and then create a filter to clean it. Layer carbon, feathers, filters, and more inside the bottle, and then pour the dirty water through the filter. Make sure you have a clear container to examine your clean(er) water. Examine the water for visibility and odor (or lack thereof). “Let kids rethink and revise their filter, based upon their results,” said Jurist. “That’s what engineers do.”

Lessons for kids ages 4 to 6: Make comparisons between the before and after water, learn about cause and effect, and see how big and small things can be filtered out.

Lessons for kids ages 7 to 10: How to perform a controlled experiment by repeating the process with the same “dirty water” in a different filter set-up, how different orders of the filter make a difference, and how to collect data using multiple senses.

Grand challenge: Make Solar Energy Affordable

Solar power is a sustainable energy source, unlike fossil fuels. That’s why materials science engineers, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers and more are working to make solar cells, which convert sunlight to energy, cheaper and more efficient. Kids are learning about solar (and other renewable energies).  “You might have panels on your roof; they might learn about them in their educational settings,” said Jurist.

Toys for aspiring engineers: Begin with a kit that teaches the fundamentals of electronic circuits. One that Jurist suggested was the Snap Circuits Jr. SC-100 Electronics Discovery Kit (available at retailers such as Amazon, Walmart, or Best Buy).

“Start off with learning how to connect a simple circuit—it really is easy, trust me,” said Jurist. “Then add different components to create something new.”

Then you can explore solar circuits with a kit, Jurist said, like the Elenco Solar Science Experiment Kit.

“The whole point is to learn to mess about (an official education term meaning play around and explore without worry of failure) and have fun,” she said.

Lessons for kids ages 4 to 6: How to read a plan (with your/adult help, of course), basic circuitry.

Lessons for kids ages 7 to 10:How to use a circuit diagram, the flow of energy, and to use their grit, a critical component in successful engineering, to complete some challenges.

Grand Challenge: Advance Health Informatics

When patients visit healthcare providers, data about their health is entered into electronic databases. By collecting, managing, and studying this data, healthcare experts can learn a lot about how to prevent and treat future diseases. Computer and information scientists, computer engineers, and biomedical engineers are developing algorithms and other methods to make sense of these vast quantities of data.

Toys for aspiring engineers:Make your child a “Doctor’s Informatics Kit.”  Buy a toy doctor’s bag or medical case—many toy stores sell them. Then fill it with a tape measure (available at craft stores), infrared thermometer (available at drugstores or big box stores), and stopwatch (available at dollar stores).

Help your child collect temperatures, arm lengths or head circumferences, and pulse rates for each member of the family. Enter all the data into a spreadsheet on your computer.  You can compare members of the family, compare different data from day to day—there are endless possibilities.  This is all health informatics.

Lessons for kids ages 4 to 6:  Different kinds of measurement—time, length, temperature—can describe things.  They can also use comparison to determine longer/shorter, faster/slower, etc. while learning that this information is important to individuals and their healthcare providers.

Lessons for kids ages 7 to 10: How to collect data of different sorts, conduct longitudinal data (data over time), and describe observations using scientific terminology.

With STEM toys, kids learn problem-solving skills and come to understand that engineering is all around them. These are gifts you can feel good about—even when the holiday season is over.