November 8 was STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Appreciation Day – subjects that we believe should be emphasized year round. This spotlight on STEM education has reignited an interest in technology-based toys. While there were always chemistry and Erector sets, in my day the most common way kids imagined a technological future was with Transformers and Star Wars’ figures. Now, there are thousands of computer programming, 3D printing and other child-appropriate kits available to make learning about STEM fun, something that will be essential if we are to excite the next generation about a future in STEM-heavy careers such as manufacturing. Here are a few ideas for encouraging interest in STEM for the children on your holiday gift list.
Screen time doesn’t have to be mindless. With the many options for coding classes and camps, the time that a child spends online can be productive and enriching. As a hobby or as a future career, giving a child the opportunity to develop a profitable skill such as coding is one way to build the next generation of manufacturing workers who will move the industry forward.
Coding-specific classes are varied. They can be incorporated into summer activities or after-school programs and, thanks to the new familiarity with online learning, can even be completed from home. Most programs begin at elementary school age but can start at any age and continue through high school.
In the past several years, we have seen great growth in a new operational manufacturing technology: 3D printing. Industries from aerospace to automotive are actively using 3D printing as part of their processes. However, what was once only seen in a household like the Jetson’s is now becoming accessible to the average Judy or George. Though it will be some time before we have one in every home, the increasing affordability of 3D printers is helping this once far-fetched concept become more commonplace.
While the higher priced, full-sized 3D printers are likely a better choice for teens and older children, there are also smaller, child-sized versions of some of the more popular brands. And if the investment in an actual printer sounds a little pricey, consider a 3D pen to pique the interest of your future automotive engineer.
What was the wave of the future not so long ago is now a kit as simple to find as an Easy-Bake Oven was in the 1980s. Instead of buying a ready-made robot with a remote control, kids today can build and program robots of their own. And today’s robotics are not limited to middle and high schoolers; some kits are suitable for children as young as three years old.
Robotic kits range from free-moving, full robots to specific moving robotic parts, such as an arm that might be used in a factory. Kits are also available in a wide price range – suitable if you are unsure of a child’s interest level. Some kits can be customized to challenge children as they grow.
Science and Chemistry
Chemistry offers many different experimental possibilities for children. Anything from slime kits to science projects are available – all boxed, accompanied by easy-to-follow instructions, and ready to go. However, to get the full manufacturing experience, it is key to find a project that takes a creative thought to its final, shelf-ready product.
For this, a make-your-own-perfume kit might fit the bill. Many perfume kits offer more than just liquid perfume as an output. They may include options for creating potpourri, air fresheners, and solid perfumes, as well as sprays and roll-on fragrances. Budding aromatherapists can create gifts or their own personal scents, all while learning about measuring, math, and color combinations.
We would be remiss if we didn’t offer some options for the youngest future manufacturers out there. For those under two, there are some specialty items as well. A few ideas include:
- Robot-themed teethers
- Manufacturing-themed onesie
- Wooden blocks
- Toddler toy laptop
- Baby’s First Machine Shop book
STEM in Action
It is likely that your local MEP Center also has opportunities for youth who are interested in learning more about STEM careers and are ready and willing to assist with feeding that interest. If you have any questions about ways to involve kids in the manufacturing process, we’re happy to answer them! To learn more, contact your local MEP Center.