By Dr. Daniel Welsch
Program Director, Natural Sciences at American Public University
The summer is a fantastic time to help kids satisfy and expand their curiosity. If your kids are anything like mine, they don’t want to learn over the summer–they want to ride bikes, go swimming, and camp. Use these and other activities to develop kids’ natural curiosity and desire to understand the world around them. The best part is that kids won’t even realize that they are learning!
One of the best things that parents can do to develop STEM skills in kids over the summer is to give kids the chance to develop their own hypothesis. You have to be sneaky and not use the word “hypothesis.” Ask “what do you think will happen when…”; that’s when summer STEM education begins.
At the Pool
The pool is a great place to explore science. Under water, things are much different. One neat idea is to look at how sound travels under water. Do you have a waterproof digital watch with a beeping alarm? Ask your kids how far away they think they’ll be able to hear the beeping under water. Then try it out! You’ll be surprised how far the sound will travel under water. (It’s really far!)
Another neat experiment is to see how you float after a deep breath. Ask your kids if they think they’ll float more or less after taking a deep breath. Then try it out! Once they get the results, ask them why it worked that way. (Hint: They become a balloon).
For older kids, ask them if they will get chilled faster on a breezy day, or a calm day after getting out of the water. Why? On a breezy day, water evaporates from you faster and steals heat from your skin to do so!
If you go to the same pool or lake throughout the summer, try to get your kids to notice the direction that the winds come from on different days. There’s often a correlation with cloud type. For example, where I live, cloud-free days tend to have winds from the northwest, but cloudy rainy days have winds from the south. Kids are usually interested in these patterns, but they take some prodding to notice them. You might want to stick a compass in the beach bag to help out, especially for the older kids. Maybe even keep a log of wind direction, cloud type, and temperature.
While in the Woods
Does your family like to go on hikes? What about treasure hunts? Check out the amazing world of geocaching. A geocache is a small treasure box hidden somewhere. Go to geocaching.com, or grab the app for Android or IOS. They are EVERYWHERE!
Use the app on your phone to guide you to the cache, using GPS. Once there, you leave a trinket, take a trinket, sign the log, and then hide the cache back. It’s tremendous fun. And from a STEM perspective, it gives your older kids a chance to think about space, satellites, and GPS.
If you really want to get into it, you can include discussions about the atomic clocks in each of the GPS satellites, and how the satellites send that time to earth. Your phone receives that signal and uses math to triangulate your position based on the atomic clock time differences received from at least three satellites! Wow!
Are there trees where you hang out for the summer? If so, a neat activity is to measure the height of a tree using a stick. But first, ask your kids to mark on the ground where the top of the tree would be if it were to fall over. Then measure it. Your kids will see that we are VERY bad at estimating the height of objects.
Here’s how to measure the height. First, find a stick the length of your arm. Hold your arm out straight with the stick pointing straight up (90-degree angle to your outstretched arm). Walk backwards until you see the tip of the stick line up with the top of the tree. Your feet are now at approximately the same distance from the tree as it is high. If you draw this out, you’ll see it’s just a triangle and some simple geometry.
Dealing with a Rainy Day?
Kids actually love to go out in the rain! So here’s a neat activity for a rainy day. Grab a bunch of cups that are all the same. Paper cups work well, as long as it’s not too windy. Ask your kids where more rain will reach the ground — in the open or under trees.
Put the cups out to see! This works best when there is a lot of rain, and it usually helps to have lots of cups out. For older kids, you could put a bunch of cups under the trees, and a bunch in the open, and then average (argh! Math!!) the results.
There’s a ton of resources online for ways to incorporate STEM activities into your kids’ summer, but it works best when you just work it into everyday routines. Once you get used to it, you’ll see opportunities for inquiry-driven explorations everywhere, and most take no planning, equipment, or materials. And you’ll find that your kids LOVE it!
About the Author
Danny Welsch is a professor and program director for science at American Public University. He holds a M.S. in Forest and Environmental Engineering from the State University of New York, and a PhD in Environmental Science from the University of Virginia. He researches, lives, and writes from the mountains of Western Maryland.