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Boost Your School’s STEAM Program as a Parent Volunteer

Parents dream of raising future doctors, engineers and Nobel Prize winners. They set up STEAM activities at home and embrace learning opportunities when running errands. But while parents might feel like they’re creating interactive learning environments at home, they worry about how their kids learn at school.

As a parent, you have a huge opportunity to improve STEAM education in your child’s school and classroom. You don’t have to be an expert in science, technology, engineering, art, or math and you certainly don’t have to be a super-parent, you just need the drive to volunteer and get involved.  

Why Do Parents Need to be Involved in the Classroom?

Parents and teachers work together to create successful learning environments. When students have both parties cheering them on, they’re more likely to succeed. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) takes a firm and clear stance on the importance of parental involvement in STEAM education:

“The involvement of parents and other caregivers in their children’s learning is crucial to their children’s interest in and ability to learn science,” they write. “We must ensure parents and children value science learning and recognize the tremendous opportunities that can arise from being more scientifically and technologically literate.”

Even students who don’t want to pursue scientific or engineering careers can benefit from STEAM education, as they learn skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity which can help them in any field. Parents who offer their own knowledge and skills to the teacher for use in the classroom make a valuable contribution.

10 Ways to Get Involved In Your Child’s STEAM Education

Getting involved in your child’s school and helping build its STEAM program doesn’t have to be a full-time job. Here are some ways you can help your child’s education by only giving up a few hours per week, or even a few hours per month.

Evaluate the School’s Current STEAM Program

Before you can start changing things and getting involved, parents need to understand the current state of their school’s STEAM program. Some schools have thriving plans to embrace STEAM, while others are still in the developmental phase.

Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancED, created a list of questions parents can ask when evaluating the STEAM education programs at their child’s school. These include:

  • Is the STEAM program interdisciplinary and problem-based, with real-world projects?
  • Are students required to demonstrate their knowledge of the work in ways that might mirror future careers?
  • Do students work in teams to solve complex problems, creating solutions using critical thinking?
  • Does the school include minority students and girls in the activities?
  • Does the school train its teachers and enhance their knowledge of STEAM?

The answers to those questions will reflect the strength (or weakness) of a school’s STEAM program. You may discover that your role in your child’s education is that of an advocate lobbying for better STEAM education and resources for the school.

Look for Parent Resources to Help You Learn

You don’t have to be a STEAM expert yourself to promote this style of learning in school. Your excitement and involvement often means more than your actual knowledge.

“Studies indicate that family engagement in children’s education yields positive results,” Dr. Margaret Honey, CEO at the New York Hall of Science, writes. “Children stay in school longer, they perform better and have better school experiences. This is consistent across grade levels, for in- and out-of-school contexts, and among African American and Latino families.”

Dr. Honey says that many parents learn along with their children and need educational resources themselves in order to help teach their kids. To solve this, the New York Hall of Science launched a new program called Parent University that provides educational resources for parents. By looking for resources, you can improve your STEAM knowledge and help out other parents who are struggling.

Participate In Contests and Competitions

Finding STEAM-based competitions can get your child get involved in science and tech even if the entire school doesn’t participate. Sarah Cornelius at Edmentum encourages parents to look for national competitions that their schools can participate in. There are dozens of science fairs, student hacker competitions, and maker challenges that parents and kids can enter together.

If your child works with a group of friends and gets a school sponsor, it could start a tradition of participating in STEAM challenges on a national level. Not only will your kids be more involved, the school as a whole will benefit from the new opportunity.

Get Buy-In From Outside Organizations

You don’t have to work as an engineer or marine biologist to get involved in your child’s STEAM education. Simply helping teachers reach out to local community organizations and set up learning opportunities can help both the class and the school boost their STEAM program.

For example, Christine Byrd is a parent who participated in her local school’s STEAM showcase. Students showed off their projects, played math-related games, and displayed their artistic creations. There was even a live reptile exhibit. Byrd jokes that the school doesn’t have its own reptile zoo, but invited a local organization to visit and spend time talking with kids about biology and reptiles. They also worked with a local research institute to create an African games exhibit to teach kids about how other students grow up around the world.  

Start a Club or Organization at the School

If the school your child attends lacks any STEAM-based clubs or activities, consider starting one.

Jon Kriegel of the Rochester Engineering Society helped start STEM Bridges, where volunteers work with students to solve problems, complete projects, and learn about STEAM. Kriegel visits classrooms weekly to work on projects, an event most students look forward to. They know that when Kriegel arrives, the lesson is going to be fun.  

You can either volunteer in-class like the volunteers at STEM Bridges, or start an after-school club that meets at the school. Even if your organization only meets monthly or a few times a semester, you’ll be bringing STEAM activities to a school that lacks them, something that can benefit the entire student body.  

Create a STEAM-Related Event

Similarly, if there aren’t any existing STEAM-related events in your child’s school, consider working with the staff to create one.

There are plenty of resources out there for creating a school-wide event and making sure it goes off without a hitch. The Chicago History Fair includes a guide in their teacher’s manual for organizing school fairs, including everything from setting a date to including refreshments.

Many STEAM-based contests have state and national finalist competitions. By participating in these, you can tap into successful competition planning and use their resources to set up your own event.  

When you’re starting to develop an event, work with the teachers to include other departments and make it a school-wide function.

“Getting others from your school involved not only adds different sets of expertise, it also helps build a sense of community around the project,” Peter Balyta, Ph.D., president of Texas Instruments Ed Tech division, writes. “Had we limited the program to only the science department, we may have missed out on the added skills brought to the table by other teachers and staff.”

Involving other teachers can help emphasize the diversity of the STEAM acronym. When the art teacher and writing teacher volunteer to help, students can fully understand how STEAM is more than science and math, but rather an interdisciplinary concept that uses all subjects.

Volunteer to Judge an Event

It’s okay if you don’t have the time to create an entire event. Instead, give up a day or afternoon each year and serve as a panelist or judge for an event.

In some cases, you won’t have to give up more than a few hours of your day to judge local competitions. The Intel Northwest Science Expo offers half-day shifts for science fair judges in order to recruit qualified volunteers. They also shared a judging guide for first-time volunteers, originally created at the California State Science Fair. The guide covers information like making fair decisions, asking questions about the work, and determining winners.

If the school faculty can count on you to volunteer annually, they can focus on making the event successful instead of wrangling volunteers.

Sign Up to Be a Room Parent

If you are able to dedicate a significant amount of time to your child’s education, consider signing up as a room volunteer in your child’s class or school. Volunteers help teachers with basic tasks, but also assist in the education process.

Angela Watson, an education author and podcaster, says she uses her parent volunteers to help struggling students. This might involve running flash cards with them or reviewing previous concepts that other students have moved on from. In younger grades, room volunteers might simply sit and read with students.

This participation also extends to parents of middle school students. Author Sharron Kahn Luttrell says many parents struggle to get involved in the middle school classroom. It’s harder to keep up with seven teachers and kids don’t want to be seen with their parents anymore. However, getting involved is just as important, even if you’re just helping out in a science lab, serving as a language translator, or working as an advisor for an extracurricular activity for a few hours each week. Any contribution helps.  

Embrace a Growth Mindset

The team at STEMjobs regularly writes about the importance of taking a growth-mindset approach to education, which is seeing any new activity as a learning opportunity.

This means students aren’t good or bad at any particular subject; rather, some subjects just require more trial and error than others. Furthermore, any errors made can be used to better understand what went wrong in the process. Parents who embrace the growth-mindset concept at home reinforce lessons kids learn in school and create a positive learning environment for children.

The opposite holds true too. Columnist Heidi Stevens at the Chicago Tribune recently reported that parents’ math anxiety is contagious. If you think you’re bad at math and tell your children that, they’ll believe math is hard and something that a person is either naturally good at or not. Kids taught by math-anxious parents learn considerably less during the course of a school year, mostly because of the psychology involved.

Parents who emphasize a growth mindset and positive associations with STEAM are more likely to see their kids thrive than those who don’t.

Don’t Push Your Kids Toward One Subject

The concept of STEAM embraces all subjects and areas of expertise. If you’re too forceful toward one subject, then you’re missing the message.

Kimberly Coleman at Edgy Labs created a list of do’s and don’ts for parents trying to encourage their kids to participate in more STEAM activities. While the list of do’s focuses on getting involved and looking for resources, the list of don’ts is equally important:

  • Don’t try to force your kids into focusing on one subject, especially in STEAM fields.
  • Don’t scold your kids for rejecting or ignoring a field of study; instead, emphasize the importance of the subject within learning as a whole.
  • Don’t put up walls when talking to your kids. Communicate with them and let them know they can come to you when they’re having trouble.

By listening to what your kids want and focusing on STEAM education as a whole, you can ensure your kids develop a love of learning and do their best, no matter what educational paths they take.    

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