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5 Holiday STEM Gift Ideas to Blow the Socks Off of Legos

We all know Legos are great, but we thought we would give some alternatives this year to bring STEM and engineering into your home! Check out our top 5 list below that are associated with an engineering discipline!

Product: Snap Circuits

Related Engineering Discipline: Electrical Engineering

Age Range: 8+

Description: Snap Circuits have been around for a few years now, but we love this option for learning and understanding the wild work of electrical engineering! It safely (no soldering needed!) exposes young students to parallel and series, switches, circuits, etc. to make learning about electrical engineering fun. If I had had this as a way to learn circuits in college, I may have gone into electrical engineering! We linked below to a beginner kit and more advanced kit, but either way, this is a super affordable way to get kids thinking circuits!

Product: Kano Harry Potter Coding Kit – Build a Wand. Learn To Code. Make Magic.

Related Engineering Discipline: Computer Engineering

Age Range: 6+

Description:  Considering the fact that we are a bunch of crazy Harry Potter nerds, this is a great balance between an interest and a great coding toy! Kano has some amazing products related to computer engineering and exposing kids to coding, but we are definitely partial to this one due to the story it is related to. This product allows kids to build a wand and code out different actions of the wand. You will need a tablet to utilize the app, but we are big fans of this amazing new take on coding fun!

Product: SmartLab Toys Ultimate Secret Formula Lab

Related Engineering Discipline: Electrical Engineering

Age Range: 8+

Description: Kit science isn’t usually our favorite, but we love this toy because of how true it stays to an actual chemistry lab. Pipettes, petri dish, calcium hydroxide…sounds like a chemistry lab that all engineers spend some time in! We also love this product because you can do a ton of different experiments. It is not a one and done type investment which is great for any budding engineer!

Product: Fort Boards

Related Engineering Discipline: Civil Engineering

Age Range: 5+

Description: All kids love to build forts; building a place they they can actually crawl into is a pretty exciting thing. So, fort boards is our number 1 choice to introduce civil engineering in a fun way. What we love about this toy is how open ended it is. There is a lot you can do with these boards and a fort is just the beginning! We believe this is the perfect combination of an introduce to construction while also giving kids room for creativity and play.

Product: Growin'GEERS

Related Engineering Discipline: Industrial Engineering

Pricing: $30/month

Age Range: 5+

Description: Okay, so to be totally honest, we looked long and far for a great toy or game that encompassed what it is like to be an industrial engineer, and we couldn’t find it. Seriously, isn’t that nuts? Especially since industrial engineering is quickly growing and because the skills you use as an industrial engineer are useful in other engineering fields (just as all the civil, chemical, and electrical engineers with their masters degree in Industrial Engineering). Anyway, we didn’t feel right leaving this discipline out, so check out Growin’GEERS for an at home option to learn about optimization and Dijkstra's algorithm. We provide the animated videos, research and brainstorming worksheets, and a planned hands-on activity that can be done using household materials (materials not provided with online membership).

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What STEM Isn't

Education is a hot bed for buzzwords and phrases: disruptive technology, digital literacy, MOOC, and the list goes on.. Buzzwords are good and bad. They bring attention to items that we need to be aware of (hence the technology reference in every word we listed above), but they also can be misused to create marketing hype around products and services.

As you probably already know, our favorite buzzword, (buzz acronym really) is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The reason why this buzzword is so near and dear to our hearts is because we believe it encourages the integration of some key areas that are cross functional in the digital or information age. When these four segments are integrated, they can truly create a learning environment that will prepare our students for the careers of the future, many of which may not yet exist.

STEM experiences brings attention to and demonstrate the value of the integration of these four disciplines. Yet, STEM is often referenced in circumstances when only one of the 4 pillars is in use. Can you think of any recent science experiments that you saw online that were referred to as STEM? What about math exercises or worksheets? Or perhaps a building or construction toy that included the STEM acronym in its packaging or marketing? The value that STEM brings is the actual application of these four disciplines to one problem or one exercise; not just a science or math exercise in a silo. The significance of STEM is teaching our students to recognize opportunities to apply science, technology, engineering, and math skills in ways that challenge their critical thinking abilities and prepares them to not be afraid to use a concept or idea differently than how it was originally explained or taught.

Today’s careers, and those of the future, will require our children to apply the skills they are learning now in creative and innovative ways. Adapting their learning to fulfill the demands of the future is what we need to be preparing our children to be able to do. So, how can we enable students to feel comfortable in that regard? We believe it centers around encouraging creativity, critical thinking, and a certain comfort level with failure. And cultivating these skills cannot be done with a set of instructions. Providing students with the answers without encouraging them to ideate and redesign limits the opportunity for students to think critically or challenge any preconceive ideas or prior knowledge. Instructions do not lead to failure, innovation, and creativity. Testing a hypothesis, asking open ended questions, and encouraging redesign creates an environment of innovation.

So, next time you hear the term STEM, ask yourself these questions when trying to decide if the product, service, or activity truly embodies the value that STEM adds to learning:

1. Does it encompass more than 1 discipline from the four pillars of STEM?
2. Is your child engaging his or her problem solving and critical thinking abilities rather than simply following a set of directions?
3. Is your child encouraged to create his or her own solution along with a testing process to know if they were successful or if they should consider modification?
4. Is technology utilized not only in the delivery of the content, but also in how students connect with the problem and complete the task.

If you answered yes to 3+ questions above, the activity likely embodies the foundation of STEM and encourages critical thinking, innovation, and creativity. Stay calm, and STEM on!

*Shout out to @SherylDwyer for the deep discussions and insights on this topic from the perspective of an educator!*

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THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT AROUND HERE!

Beginnings. They are exciting, slightly unnerving, and refreshing. So, welcome to the beginning of the Growin'GEERS blog! To keep track of a journey such as this can be a challenge, so hopefully this blog will serve not only as a reminder for where we have been but also as a peek behind the curtain for what Growin'GEERS is all about. We will discuss not only our journey, but stories about STEM across the country, our advocates, and of course, our amazing GEERlings. Because without our budding engineers, we are nothing!

For this first post, I decided to give a little background on how Growin'GEERS came to be and what started this incredible roller coaster ride that I hope will never roll into the station.
Since I was a kid, I have always been drawn to problem solving. Now, problem solving comes in all shapes and sizes, but I was particularly drawn to problems affecting people. So, by talking with some engineers and Pitt professors (thanks Dad!), I pursued a degree in Industrial Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

Any time I am discussing my major with someone who is not aware of what Industrial Engineers do, I always hear "Wow, I wish I had known about that major in school". Thankfully, for me, my dad was there to point me in the appropriate direction.

After about a year of working full time, I decided to pursue my other passion, and I volunteered to work with a group of students in North Philadelphia for a problem solving competition. During my volunteer hours there, I learned that these students had a massive interest in engineering when I talked about my job and what I did on a day to day basis but had an aversion to the math and science topics they were learning in school. My biggest takeaway from that experience was that they did not understand how the concepts they were learning were actually applicable in the real world. They did not understand how scientists or engineers could possibly use the concepts they were learning to help people or solve problems.

From that experience, Growin'GEERS was born. The goal of Growin'GEERS is to empower and enlighten elementary students to see the potential that STEM concepts have in the real world. By starting our journey with a focus on this age group, we are working to encourage their interest in these topics before they decide that they are too hard or irrelevant in reaching their goals.
Growin'GEERS is working to paint an accurate picture of an engineer for the next generation. This picture includes a love for STEM, the ability to communicate, a knack for thinking outside of the box, and the courage to fail. We want students to dream of being engineers and to understand the impact they can have by working towards adding to their STEM toolbox. By showing students the vast array of options available to them within the engineering field, we plan to decrease the number of students who get to middle school or high school without knowing what an engineer does.

So, join us on our journey to inspire the next generation of innovators, thought leaders, and engineers, or as we tend to say, elementary engineering dreamers.

Keep those gears moving,
Alex