Are fun and games the future of STEM education?

scattered-LEGO-bricks

When businesses seek to identify actions they can take to help students thrive, what options are available? Some companies create nonprofit foundations through which they donate directly to school systems, with goals such as reducing student-teacher ratios or launching new teaching methods. Others devise informal, in-house grant-making systems to meet needs for short-term projects like roof repairs at a local school.

Of course, donations don’t have to be strictly financial. The Walt Disney Company has donated more than 20 million books to schools, and other corporate givers equip classrooms with new or refurbished technology tools, from laptops to MP3 players, as a way of helping to modernize instruction while minimizing e-waste.

But no matter what form corporation-school collaboration takes, one theme has become increasingly common in these efforts to improve students’ learning opportunities — and that’s the use of toys to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts.

Here are three reasons why today’s education-minded businesses — and the schools they seek to support via corporate responsibility efforts — are rushing to complement textbooks with STEM learning that lets kids flex their intellectual muscles in seriously playful ways:

  1. “Maker” activities can teach unexpected skills.

Through its LEGO Education unit, the famous toy-brick maker has worked with an engineering equipment company, National Instruments, for two decades to adapt real-world engineering software (called LabVIEW) for its kid-focused robotics sets. To get involved, businesses can reach out to school partners to fund a few sets or supply entire LEGO learning centers. As they program their robots to walk and speak, students learn a great deal about what it’s generally like to use the technologies professional engineers rely on in their actual workplaces.

However, toy-building challenges can do even more than give kids information about STEM subject matter. Experts say they’re also great at teaching soft skills that improve job readiness, such as how to work productively with peers and how to communicate in precise, sophisticated ways, whether students aim for STEM careers or not. When absorbed in the magic of fashioning intricate structures, students can additionally explore the unexpected positives of outright failure — a mindset that can lead to innovation.

  1. The more ways there are to learn, the better it is for students.

Learning science researchers say the most effective classrooms create space for a range of different teaching approaches. Why? Because no single instructional method speaks with the same power to every student. It probably oversimplifies things to think in terms of strict “learning styles” students are stuck with. But some students do feel more comfortable processing lectures while others understand better by doing. And that’s where STEM-focused toys and games come in.

Teachers have recognized how engaging building projects can be for children who crave literal hands-on, experiential learning. In accordance with the Montessori ethos that “the hand is the instrument of the mind,” LEGO builders get to touch and feel and weigh and assess as they become immersed in tactile, multi-sensory processes. In this way, students move beyond rote memorization and begin to apply knowledge in new contexts to creatively solve problems. Diverse learning approaches in the classroom may someday lead to a more diverse workplace, with the professional STEM world continuing to move beyond counterproductive stereotypes about “tech geeks” who all look and think alike.

  1. Employees can join the fun, too.

While some companies may choose to donate LEGO bricks or other equipment, others are looking for expanded involvement with their community schools, and that often means finding ways to make it easy for employees to actively volunteer in STEM education programs. At DXC Technology, our employees are already professional STEM superstars, with world-class expertise in everything from medical research to coding, and mentoring is a natural extension of our ongoing commitments to collaboration and service.

Through the DXC Lunch ‘n’ Lego program, employees donate an hour or two of their time at a lunch break to their local FIRST LEGO League (FLL). During these events, participants collaborate on LEGO builds, assembling models required for FLL tournaments in their areas. In a recent year, Lunch n’ Lego engaged over 1,000 employees in 82 cities and 26 countries, adding up to a global volunteering donation of more than 2,000 hours, or the equivalent of one full-time employee for a year. By supporting educational initiatives like this to motivate learning in STEM disciplines that are central to the DXC mission, we strive to spur a passion for coding and computer sciences among today’s students.

Launching a STEM education program

Enterprises seeking to make a difference for students, from kindergarten to high school, might ask a few initial questions when considering a STEM program that incorporates toy-based learning:

  • Does the program align with our mission, enabling us to continue exerting a positive influence, but in a way we haven’t explored before?
  • Do our employees have the technical, organizational and other expertise — as well as the genuine enthusiasm — needed to bring the program fully to life?
  • How smoothly will our employees’ volunteer efforts integrate with their work responsibilities and roles?
  • What equipment, gathering spaces and additional investment will we need to ensure the program’s success?

As critical as STEM learning can be in preparing students for future careers, it’s also a way of orienting young people in their lives today, with brightly colored plastic bricks helping them better understand ideas that underlie the technologies they use every day. With all of these benefits, is it any wonder that STEM classrooms are becoming more fun — and instructive — than ever?

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