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Here's the secret to making STEM more approachable

What if our kids simply don’t like science and math? Here’s how parents can make STEM more approachable for their children—and themselves.

“STEM.” We hear about it all the time. And we’re told that encouraging children, especially our girls, to engage—or even pursue a career—in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) is important. However, when it comes to putting this into practice, it can get confusing. What if our kids simply don’t like science and math? And how much is too much? Here’s how every parent can make STEM more approachable for their children—and themselves.

Confront “math fear”

One of the most difficult parts of parenting is learning how to unpack and overcome our own insecurities and shortcomings. And when it comes to math, many of us have “fear.” According to Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), around 93% of Americans indicate that they experience some level of math anxiety. So, if you’ve felt anxiety creep up when you’re trying to help your children with their times tables, you’re not alone. “You don’t need to know how to code. You don’t need to think you’re amazing at math and science,” Deborah Singer, Chief Marketing Officer of Girls Who Code, says. “You can learn with your children through trial and error and show them you’re doing it too.” There’s no better way to teach your children how to behave than modeling it yourself. By showing your children you’re willing to try something, fail at it and then learn from your mistakes, they’ll be more equipped to do that, too.

Be aware of cultural messages

It’s not just important for parents to set the right example; we also have to be conscious of the cultural messages our children—especially our girls—are receiving. But what exactly are those messages? According to Singer, it comes down to two words: avoid failure. “It’s not that girls aren’t as good at something, they’re just taught if they’re not good at something, then it’s not worth pursuing,” Singer says. This is one reason why we may see our boys as smarter or more capable. “We socialize boys to be okay with failure and keep going and we socialize girls to avoid failure,” Singer says.

Encouraging girls to learn from—instead of avoiding—failure can start at an early age. “I can see my daughter getting steered to play with dolls and princesses instead of building blocks,” Singer says. Exposing girls to different types of play isn’t just about redefining gender norms, it could also help change their perceptions of success. “The thing is, these engineering activities are all about building and rebuilding through trial and error,” Singer says. “Girls need to be exposed to tinkering, playing and exploring.”

Even once our girls are more immersed in STEM, it can be hard for them to imagine a career in it if they don’t see other women—especially women of color—in a similar position. According to the National Science Board, while women comprise about 50% of the workforce, they only account for about 25% of those in STEM careers. “Parents can point to the rich history of women in computing,” Singer says. “The great irony is that women were the initial pioneers in technology until the 1980’s when women were told this field wasn’t for them.” Reading books about trailblazers like Katherine Johnson, or watching movies like Hidden Figures, can be great ways to learn about these women with your girls.

Make it relevant

In the car, on the phone, or in your home —STEM impacts us every single day, in big ways and in small. “STEM is everywhere and understanding that is one of the first steps to realizing it’s nothing to be afraid of,” Nicole Small, president of Lyda Hill Foundation says. “It’s literally everywhere—from the technology we use to how we calculate the tip at breakfast. We could not function without it.” So how do we specifically call it out for our kids? “Carpool conversations are so important,” Small says. “When driving kids to school, point to signs or construction sites and ask, ‘How do you think they made that? How do you think they built that?’” Asking these types of questions will not only show your children how relevant STEM is in their everyday lives, but also, their future careers. “We can’t predict what jobs our kids are going to have,” Small says. “But we do know they’re going to have to be creative, problem solve and be STEM-literate.”

When it comes to careers, we can fall into rigid perceptions of what we can excel in. “People will say, ‘I’m not good at math. I’m an art person,’” Small says. But we usually use more STEM concepts than we realize. “For example, if you’re a digital artist, you are good at engineering, you are good at technology.” You can show your kids how often they use STEM by encouraging them to solve a problem they care about. Chances are, they will have to multiply, build, or experiment at some point.

Find activities and resources

In a world where our kids are already pressed for free time, parents can be resistant to adding more to their plates. But “there’s a big difference between overscheduling your children and actively exposing them to different concepts,” Small says. And it doesn’t have to be difficult or unenjoyable. “Going to museums and zoos are a great place to start,” Small says. Or, research local organizations like Girls Who Code and other nonprofits that help encourage kids’ interest in STEM. “You never know what’s going to stick with them.”