The chasm of need for creative virtual learning experiences grew during the pandemic, especially in STEM classroom activities. Some organizations stepped up with programs to fill this learning gap that existed before schools went online and will continue to exist after kids are back in the classroom.

“Many schools simply don’t have the resources to augment classroom instruction with valuable hands-on, experiential alternatives,” says Sarah Buhayar, Pacific Science Center board member and a director at the Gates Foundation. This is particularly true in Title I schools, labeled as such due to their lower-income student population. These schools receive scholarships and funding through various programs to support student education. The greatest number of Washington state Title I schools are in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties, with 397 schools and 139,000 low-income students.

STEM classes are particularly in need of help to get kids’ imaginations soaring. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reports only 46.7% of students met science standards and 48.9% met math standards on the 2018-2019 Measurement of Student Progress. Add the fact that only 5% of lifetime learning happens in the classroom, and it’s easy to see that the best way to increase the public’s critical thinking skills and knowledge of science is to reach them during the other 95% of their lives.

For years, teachers and parents in King County and beyond have reliably looked to the Pacific Science Center to help get kids excited about STEM learning. During the challenging time of the pandemic, PacSci created a free digital catalog of STEM programming for students in school or at home. This included free virtual field trips to under-resourced schools across Washington and more than 170 full scholarships to summer camps. This summer, the catalog will include access to virtual and in-person summer camps, and PacSci plans on doubling the scholarships awarded.

Virtual classroom field trips

Virtual field trips are a way for teachers to take their kids somewhere without leaving the classroom.

“Every classroom in my seven-year-old son’s school did a virtual field trip to PacSci this year,” Buhayar says. “My son’s classroom was doing a unit on water ecosystems, and their virtual lesson was learning about pond life. They analyzed microscope slides of pond water and learned about animals you might find in that ecosystem. My son came home so excited, being able to imagine and visualize all of those things. A teacher had to organize that session, but they didn’t have to find a pond to visit, and manage transportation and permission slips and all that stuff. I think it’s a much more time-efficient and cost-effective way to add one more dimension to learning.”

Virtual summer camps

The in-person experience of sitting around a campfire, eating s’mores and gazing up at the stars is just one aspect of the value of summer camps. Another is to supplement STEM learning in a fun and interactive way — which, thankfully, can happen in-person or virtually this summer.

Buhayar’s son attended a PacSci virtual science camp last summer. “He was in his bedroom rigging up an experiment using his iPad, string coming off his bunk bed, figuring out how to make a plane he built fly,” she says. “He explained to me how he was testing the slopes and the velocity and the acceleration. I actually learned things from him that I couldn’t have taught him. I don’t have the skills or time to put together a lesson like that.”

Create a STEM-friendly home

There’s no doubt that children learn in different ways, and textbook learning isn’t always the liveliest way to learn about STEM topics. Here are five STEM-friendly activities parents can do together with their kids to encourage a love of learning — and STEM:

  1. Cooking
  2. Gardening
  3. Small home repairs
  4. Organize (and count) items in the fridge or pantry
  5. Explore the PacSci Curiosity at Home Activities page

At Pacific Science Center, our mission is to ignite curiosity in every child and fuel a passion for discovery, experimentation and critical thinking in all of us. We believe science is for everyone.