How Pets Can Enhance STEM Teaching and Learning
Natural connections with animals can lead to a lifelong interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Adopting a pet is a big day for any family, and there’s plenty of joy to be had in inviting a dog or cat into your life. While pets are wonderful for many reasons, they can also be a great way to spark an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills in kids of all ages — and adults, too. Whether you’re thinking about adopting a pet or are just looking for ways to enhance engagement in the classroom, connecting to animals provides a wealth of learning opportunities.
How Kids Benefit From Caring for Pets
Most people have a vague sense that raising an animal is a good learning experience for children, and scientists have begun to quantify these benefits. For example, researchers from the University of Vienna found that having a dog in the classroom increased student autonomy and social integration while decreasing aggressive behavior. The social-emotional benefits of caring for animals are enormous and include direct experiences of important life skills, including responsibility, trust, and compassion.
The American Humane Association recently surveyed teachers about their experiences with classroom pets. Their findings indicate that teachers use pets as a jumping-off point for interdisciplinary instruction in several areas, including:
- Direct science instruction
- Leadership and responsibility
- Enhancement of language arts
- Relaxation and stress relief techniques
Teachers in the study reported that classroom pets opened the door to deeper and more engaging STEM learning, including lessons on “habitats, ecosystems, environmental conservation, climate, life cycles, genetics, reproduction, adaptations, and animal behavior.”
Using Animals to Promote STEM Thinking
While classroom teachers may have developed specific curriculum and lesson plans that connect to school pets, biology isn’t the only STEM subject that animals can spark an interest in. When we consider the importance of STEM learning and its impact on students’ futures, we must remember that thinking like a scientist is the most important skill of all. That is, students may not become biologists or veterinarians because of their experience with a pet cat at home or a gerbil in the classroom, but they will certainly use critical thinking skills for the rest of their lives.
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Much of the best STEM learning involves asking students to analyze a situation and solve problems with creative solutions. This may involve scientific experimentation or engineering a physical or technological solution. Being responsible for a pet can provide a real-world problem that makes this kind of learning truly authentic and hands-on.
For example, consider a simple fish tank. As children learn to care for the fish properly, they can experiment with a number of ways to make caring for the fish easier. Is there an optimal amount of food to provide? What’s the best way to reduce algae build-up in the tank? Can you train a fish? Why?
Interacting with reptiles and mammals puts even greater possibilities into play since these creatures can be touched, moved, and interacted with. From designing a cozier cat carrier to tracking a puppy’s weight gain over time, there’s an endless array of learning opportunities that pets provide.
The trick for parents at home and teachers in the classroom is to encourage wide-ranging questioning and allow students the freedom to experiment. Is there a problem that the pet experiences? Does something get in the way of its comfort or make life harder for the people caring for the pet? What is the best way to ensure its happiness? Allowing children to focus on a meaningful problem to solve is the best way to create real engagement.
STEM Careers With Animals
Solving problems for pets is exactly the type of thinking that inspires many real-life STEM entrepreneurs. The pet tech market is valued at over $4.5 billion and is expected to grow significantly through 2025. One great example of a company using STEM to make a pet’s life better is the Chamberlain Group (CGI). CGI has just introduced the myQ Pet Portal, a smart dog door that opens and closes via an app, so pets can safely get outside even if you’re running late at work. Seamlessly integrated within the door, the myQ Pet Portal includes a hidden smart panel featuring a patent-pending smart, elevator style opening mechanism that works with a custom collar sensor. It’s an innovative product that uses smart technology and attractive engineering to solve a real problem for people and their pets.
This — like so much of the emerging pet tech market — is a teachable example of entrepreneurship and innovation that can inspire kids to envision a future in STEM that goes beyond the laboratory. Embracing entrepreneurship is a crucial key to success, and exploring pet tech is a great way to expand the definition of what a STEM career looks like.
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Of course, there are plenty of careers that involve working directly with animals, too — and many require a solid background in STEM. Caring for a pet today could inspire a lifelong passion that leads to work in many fields, including:
- Research in genetics, animal behavior, biotechnology, and more
- Veterinary care and other medicine-related fields
- Food processing and other industrial work
- Livestock breeding and farming
- Animal training and therapy
- Environmental science
Careers with animals range from pure research jobs to practical, hands-on work with animals, but all require the deep critical thinking that a solid STEM education provides. For students who haven’t yet found their passion, or who struggle to find meaning in traditional academic subjects, connections with animals can serve as a starting point for engagement that opens up a world of possibilities. In this way, our humble, loyal pets can truly enrich our children’s lives in more ways than we can imagine.
This article was originally featured as a Forbes Technology Council submission on February 11th, 2021 and updated for Medium’s Educate. on March 1st, 2021.
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