How To Choose the Right STEM Enrichment Program for Your Child

Paul de Gennaro
Jul 22 · 15 min read
Photo by yohoprashant via Pixabay.

Giving your child learning opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is a laudable goal. But it’s not as simple as signing your kid up for a robotics camp. STEM, at its best, is an interdisciplinary approach of engaging our curiosity about the world around us and modeling or making things in response to it. How do you give your child the best STEM experience that prepares them to succeed academically, and even eventually find work they love?

Ask Yourself This Question: How Does My Child Experience the World Around Them?

We all have different strengths and abilities. The question is: how well do you know your own child’s strengths and abilities? Do they see what you see? Do they hear what you hear? Do they process that incoming information the same or differently than you? And how does any of this impact their ability to learn? Do they have a unique skill set that prepares them for success in STEM?

If you’re like me, then you generally try to provide your children with as many enriching experiences as possible, with the hope that you’re optimizing their “development.” Okay, maybe you weren’t exactly thinking in those terms, but intuitively you just have a sense that these experiences are of great value to them.

Giving kids the opportunity during the summer to explore the world through a number of different modalities (auditory, visual, tactile, smell, etc.) helps fine-tune these skills and ultimately improves their ability to learn. The issue becomes choosing from the myriad summer opportunities available to kids these days. How should a parent decide what to include, or should they just have their children do any and everything possible?

I know my wife and I struggled with making decisions on what’s best for each of our children. These decisions can become even more important when considering activities that may improve their ability to achieve academically. Our schools do the best that they can; unfortunately, it just may not be enough to ensure long-term academic or professional success, particularly in STEM.

I also have a professional interest in STEM education. With a Ph.D. from UC Davis’ Learning and Mind Science Program, I’ve been an anatomy and physiology instructor for nearly 20 years. I developed an assessment to help parents understand their own kid’s abilities, based on research that shows a strong correlation between three key measures (spatial ability, proportional reasoning, and pitch pattern perception) and long term success in STEM academics.

[Editor’s note: we include links below to the author’s product, STEM-Score, as one of four recommended assessments.]

Impacts of a Standardized Curriculum

The rigid standards-based curriculum dominating the education landscape has really hamstrung our dedicated and motivated teachers. As part of their training, teachers are well aware of the benefits of experiential learning and the importance of skill development, but the day-to-day logistics associated with a standards-based curriculum do not allow for the space and opportunity to provide an optimal learning environment.

Your child’s teacher most likely knows your child’s strengths and challenges, but is just not given the space, time, or resources to develop an individualized curriculum.

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

A focus on skill development instead

Because of these types of issues, we as parents decided to take matters into our own hands. Eventually, we realized that exposure to different learning activities really isn’t that different than exposing kids to different sports at an early age.

In that instance, the emphasis really shouldn’t be on winning or losing, but on skill development for long-term enjoyment and success with sports, and with exercise in general, right?

When applying this concept to “academics,” I think we need to be mindful that it shouldn’t be about whether or not they are “achieving/winning” in a standards-based curriculum at an early age. Instead, there should be an emphasis placed on developing skills as a learner for long-term success.

I thought that success and skill development were synonymous, but they just aren’t. Especially when you apply this thinking to early childhood education. If we could predict success at an early age, we would know whom the next Lionel Messi, or Steph Curry, etc. would be at a very early age. But any experienced coach knows that a child “achieving” on the soccer field (for instance) at 9 years old has almost no bearing on their potential for success in high school, college, or beyond.

Why would academics be any different? Our ability to learn in a number of domains changes or even improves as we age. Therefore, we should pay less attention to early achievement and more attention to how a given child learns, especially when it comes to the all-important Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) content.

The Solution We Came up With

Because of our background in academics, my wife and I decided to enroll our children in schools that have as many hands-on learning activities as possible. Their school in combination with other activities wouldn’t be labeled as “STEM” focused, but they are providing an important foundation for long-term STEM learning.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Through these opportunities, we knew that there would be an emphasis on a number of skills important for learning science content (visual processing, language acquisition, etc.). Not only would our children improve these skills correlated with long-term STEM success, but also they will be given the freedom and space to do so at their own developmental pace.

We felt that learning multiple languages, woodworking, farming practices, drawing techniques, etc. would definitely give a child the skills needed for continued STEM learning. Additionally, we hoped that our children would build confidence that they can succeed in a number of different ways that go beyond their typical classroom experiences. As a result of this effort, we try to provide similar opportunities for our children during the summer—just without homework, grades, and classrooms.

Rationale through a sports lens

If you look at it from a long-term or developmental perspective, it probably makes the most sense to let your child play a number of different sports early on. Locking kids into a single sport (particularly year-round) at an early age is almost guaranteed to lead to burn out or overuse injuries by the time they reach middle or high school.

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

It also makes tremendously more sense to emphasize skill development as opposed to a focus on achievement (typically measured by wins or losses). Bottom line development of skills in a number of different areas (running, swimming, throwing or shooting a ball, swinging a racket, or a bat, or a golf club, etc.) will give them a solid foundation for almost any sport or exercise activity they choose to pursue later on. As a matter of fact, as children continue to grow and develop, what seemed a weakness early on may actually lead to a “strength” later on. For instance, the “slow” kid in soccer you knew as a 9-year-old could develop the technical skill and endurance to become an amazing midfielder in high school.

With our children’s early experiences in sports and in school, we now understand the value of diversifying their learning environments, much like we see the value of encouraging our kids to play a number of different sports. A focus on skill development and confidence building have led to a much more enjoyable educational journey for our entire family, AND we know our children are well-positioned for success in the long term. Memorizing minimal amounts of content in the younger grades works well in that context. However, when content becomes considerably more complex and voluminous (i.e. college, career, etc.), it’s time to develop the ability to learn content, as opposed to just memorizing it.

The Bigger Picture

As we move through our day-to-day activities, we kind of assume that others around us process information in much the same way. But do they? Sitting on a plane ready for takeoff might be a really exciting experience for me, but it might be a real source of fear for another person on that same flight (my wife, for instance). Why the difference? Most likely due to the differences in the way we process events associated with flying.

Trying to remember someone’s name might be really difficult for a given individual; however, that same person may be really adept at remembering faces. This person may just have a stronger visual processing ability, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t improve their ability to associate a face with a name. In different circumstances, these skills can be a benefit or a detriment; it just totally depends on the situation right?

For one student, learning a new math concept might be as simple as listening to their instructor talk about it. But another student may need to also draw pictures to make complete sense of that same concept. Simply listening may work with simpler math concepts, so it might be best to work on drawing pictures (a skill) that will help when concepts become increasingly more difficult.

These are just a few examples of how people process information differently. Be it emotions, visio-spatial ability, auditory processing, etc., we all differ in the way we experience and then interpret our environments. But, just like in sports, where speed can help in a number of different areas, cognitive skill development in a few critical areas can help in a number of different environments. For us, it was about identifying the key areas of skill development that could serve our children well for the long haul. Not just academically, but professionally as well.

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

Recommendations for Parents

  1. Take the opportunity to learn more about how your child is experiencing the world around them. Discover their strengths and abilities, especially as they relate to the potential for long-term success in STEM. We accomplished this through general cognitive measures(WASI II and Shipley II), assessment of our children’s phonological processing via Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP), their sensory/behavioral relationships (via the Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile), and their STEM aptitude (via the STEM-Score diagnostic I developed). More on these assessments below.
  2. After developing an understanding of your child’s uniqueness, see if you can align their academic and summer STEM experiences with their particular skills and abilities. Summer is the perfect time to provide your child with the opportunity to explore STEM content in ways that aren’t being provided in the typical classroom environment. But be sure to identify what your child’s particular skills and abilities are first! Simply signing them up for a “robotics” class because it sounds like a perfect STEM opportunity may not be what is best for your child. Maybe an art and woodworking course could give them the skills to understand STEM content in a number of different areas beyond robotics? Don’t assume that a one-size fits-all model will work for your child, as they have their own unique set of strengths and needs. The question is, do you know what their skills are and how best to support them in their journey?

Assessments to Learn More About Your Child

As previously mentioned, my wife and I (because of my access to different diagnostics) decided to get to know our children’s individual skills and abilities. To help with this, we’ve used general cognitive measures for the purposes of establishing a baseline. The overarching idea is that if we can improve our child’s cognitive skill-set, then so too should general cognition improve.

Why did we do this, you might ask? My personal opinion is that if we don’t make the effort to learn who our children are, then often times we’ll find ourselves saying things like “well, he’s just not a math guy”, or “she’s just a natural when it comes to writing papers”, etc., etc., etc. These labels can be damaging to a child (or their siblings), and ignore the larger obligation (in my mind) to help our children better understand who they are, how they process information, and how best to navigate their way through an ever-changing world; an increasingly STEM-focused world.

The comprehensive test of phonological processing (CTOPP-2)

Once establishing a baseline with regard to cognition, we then looked at our children’s ability to process/acquire language. Very specifically, we looked at the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP-2), which is available for ages 4 and up. This can help identify early-on developmental concerns regarding language processing that can sometimes be missed in a typical educational environment.

My particular interest in this area revolves around my own experiences as an anatomy and physiology instructor, and the frustration I see in some students’ ability to learn new terminology. The greater the struggle in acquiring language, typically the greater the struggle with the learning of associated content (functions of a particular muscle for instance).

Knowing this about your child can help you develop a plan of support or an approach to learning content that can alter their experience for the better. You won’t be saying “well, he’s just not a science guy,” but instead you could say “well, we know he struggles a little with phonological processing, so we’ve established a routine for breaking down the pronunciation of given terms first, and then attack their meaning.” Huge difference, right?

For this assessment, you’ll need to work with a professional who’s been trained to administer it (“qualification level B” with Pearson, the publishers of the test). Your teacher can probably put you in touch with your school’s psychologist to find a qualified professional.

Adolescent/adult sensory profile

Having had the fortune of working in health care for a long time before becoming an educator, I’ve also learned a lot about sensory issues as well. The Adolescent/Adult Sensory Profile is a really simple questionnaire that gets to the heart of an individuals’ behavioral response to various stimuli (sound, proximity to others, visuals, etc.). It’s designed for those aged 11 and beyond. This really helps understand how a child interprets the physical world around them and helps explain their subsequent behavior in a given environment.

For instance, I come from a large family and therefore feel at ease when there are lots of people around. In a classroom, this could mean that I would do well in group-work environments. However, a child that is particularly sensitive to auditory stimuli may much prefer a quieter, more independent learning experience. As a matter of fact, this child may “act out” in order to be excused from a class, just for the sake of escaping the “excessive” noise (from their perspective).

So what I’m saying to you — as a parent — is that it’s critical that you learn more about your child’s specific responses to particular stimuli, so you can best support them in feeling confident in a number of different environments.

This is another test by Pearson that requires a professional to administer (with the same requirements as the CTOPP-2, the same person can probably give your child both assessments.)

Additional tests published by Pearson and WPS

These assessments may also be useful and/or recommended by a practitioner.

  • The Sensory Profile 2 family of assessments “provides standardized tools to help evaluate a child’s sensory processing patterns in the context of home, school, and community-based activities.”
  • Shipley 2 “provides a brief yet robust measure of crystallized and fluid cognitive ability, generating a quick estimate of overall cognitive functioning and impairment.”
  • WASI-II — The Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence Second Edition, “provides a brief, reliable measure of cognitive ability in clinical, educational, and research settings.”

STEM-Score diagnostic

Lastly (in terms of measures), as part of my own Ph.D. program I developed a STEM-Score diagnostic that looks at 3 key areas associated with long-term success in STEM: spatial ability, proportional reasoning, and pitch pattern perception.

These three areas are measured in as much a non-verbal format as possible and look more at a child’s intuition with math, their ability to work with mental rotation, and their skill with auditory processing of musical samples. Through these three subcategories, we can gain a solid picture of where our children are strongest, and where they need additional support and practice. In other words, we can talk with our children about topics covered in school in a skill-based contextualization, as opposed to simply reflecting on their “mastery” of given content.

How to get these diagnostics for your child

As a rule of thumb, the aforementioned diagnostics can be administered by a school psychologist, a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, etc. Note that in some instances (sensory profile for example), a licensed healthcare practitioner like an occupational or physical therapist can administer the diagnostic.

The price for any of these (and other diagnostics) can run $300 to $700 per assessment, depending on the type of report generated and follow-up consultation required. If you feel your child too could benefit from these and other diagnostics, it’s always a great idea to start with your school district, as there will be no charge for assessment; provided there is a sufficient reason for concern.

For the STEM-Score diagnostic that I wrote, the cost is $350 (unless your child is a student in the Sacramento City Unified School District, or Sacramento City College, in which case it is free).

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What to Do With This New-Found Information

Once you have a good understanding of your child’s skills and abilities, you can begin to unlock the secret to a healthy, happy, and successful summer and/or academic experience for both you and your child.

For instance, if I know my child doesn’t do particularly well with spatial-based tasks, then I’m NOT going to sit them down in front of YouTube video after YouTube video hoping they’ll learn about molecular structure. Instead, I will first want that child to draw their impression of molecular structure on a piece of paper, and then challenge them to be able to put a more 3D representation of that same concept. Only after taking these initial steps can I then expect that they can visually process a rapidly-moving 3D video clip. Unfortunately, it just so happens that video games that involve first-person movement can be particularly beneficial to developing spatial skills. So, yes, it’s okay for kids to spend some time with video games, but it definitely shouldn’t be the foundation for their summer day activities!

Photo by Laith Abuabdu on Unsplash

If my child has challenges with phonological processing, then during the summer months I would encourage them to learn a musical instrument, provide opportunities for singing, or to learn a new language. When in school, I would have them spend time recording themselves repeating a number of terms into a recorder, their phone, etc. They would then compare these pronunciations with resources available online that recite specific terms in their correct pronunciation. Additionally, my child would then generate a flash card deck of sorts, which not only highlights the correct pronunciation but also includes the importance of that term (basic definition, relationship to the larger topic being covered, etc.). You see, as they emphasize sounds associated with a term, they can at the same time tie content to that sound, making it easier to retrieve (recall) at a later time.

Photo by Rustic Vegan on Unsplash

Proportional reasoning ability serves as a foundation for more advanced mathematical concepts. Therefore, what we’re looking at from a parenting perspective is not so much the ability to calculate, but the ability to comprehend.

For instance, instead of focusing just on the mechanics of mathematical problem solving, we’ll try and ask our children about the relationships between a given set of terms: the magnitude difference between terms, their ability to impact a given outcome (answer), and their overall contribution to the problem at hand. For really young children, working on proportional reasoning is as simple as having them help us with unpacking groceries, or packing the car before going on a trip, etc.

We try to have our children help with food preparation as much as possible. Baking, and cooking in general, are amazing ways to learn the importance of proportions, and everyone is rewarded at the end (assuming all goes well).

Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash

Focus on the positive

At the end of the day, we as parents do the best we can for our children. For my wife and I, we place tremendous value on education (as educators, you would hope so, right?). In particular, I see the ever-increasing value of STEM education.

In order for our children and us to have positive summer and academic experiences (not focused on grades, not feeling inadequate, or unable to succeed), we’ve shifted the conversation to skill-building—STEM-skill building in particular.

Once you know what those skills are, where your child sits on a given continuum, you can then help them implement best-practices to help them build confidence and abilities for a long-term path and/or career in STEM.

I hope to have at least started a conversation in your household about how to best support your child’s development and subsequent academic and/or professional pursuits.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Paul de Gennaro

Written by

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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