The term STEM — short for “science, technology, engineering and math” — is so common these days that it’s hard to believe the acronym has been around for fewer than two decades. Even more recent is STEAM, which adds an “A” for art and creativity. Yet as any parent will tell you, STEM and STEAM are everywhere: in school textbooks, in popular kids shows and even in the toys and devices that line kids’ playroom shelves.
But with more options than ever before, how can you select the best STEM toy for your child? What qualities make a STEM toy especially effective at helping your child ignite a spark for science, technology, engineering and math? Read on for everything you need to know about STEM toys — including the innovative class of AI robots that nurture a love for STEM through interactive experiences.
The history of STEM and STEAM
The likely originator of the term “STEM” was Judith A. Ramaley, a former director for education and human resources at the National Science Foundation. While working to develop a curriculum that would boost education in the fields of science, mathematics, engineering and technology, her group labeled the subjects “SMET.” Ramaley didn’t like the way that sounded, so she rearranged the acronym to create STEM. She felt this was easier to remember and captured the essence of the relationship between the subjects much better.
Judging by how quickly the term caught on, Ramaley’s intuition was correct!
The first “on the record” usage of the STEM acronym seems to be in 2005, with the creation of the bipartisan “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, caucus” in the U.S. House of Representatives. A year later, references to STEM began to pop up in numerous papers and academic journals. By 2008, STEM had become fully integrated into the modern English lexicon, with educators, researchers, politicians and reporters all using the term regularly.
The term STEAM, which expanded the boundaries of STEM to include art and creativity, was developed in 2006 by researcher Georgette Yakman. While working in education, she became an advocate for incorporating creativity and innovation into STEM learning. The STEAM framework encourages researchers, educators and students to “think outside the box” by pairing STEM fields with innovation, imagination and curiosity. Not only is STEAM fun, but it has led to numerous novel research approaches!
What’s the latest data on STEM careers?
According to the US Dept. of Labor Statistics, demand for STEM jobs is expected to grow at a rate of 11% per year, the highest of any occupation. With this in mind, it’s no wonder 76% of parents would like their child to end up in a STEAM-related or adjacent career. (Professions such as engineer, doctor, web developer, computer programmer and scientist topped the list.) More than 90% of parents say it’s important to nurture STEM / STEAM skills in their children, and 88% have actively encouraged their kids to develop these skills.
In Miko’s survey of U.S. parents, math topped the list of subjects in which parents were seeking supplemental learning for their kids. Art, science and engineering also made the list — yet another indication that parents are prioritizing their kids’ STEAM learning.
What should you look for in STEM toys?
Toy Association researchers have spent a great deal of time exploring what makes STEM toys effective. Not surprisingly, they’ve come up with some useful insights.
1. The toy should encourage kids to explore one or all of the STEM fields — ideally, using the scientific method.
The scientific method is a process of acquiring knowledge that consists of observation, measurement, experimentation, testing, analyzing and the formation and modification of hypotheses. That sounds like a lot, but we can boil it down to the basics: Does the toy guide the child through the steps of asking questions, gathering information, forming a hypothesis, testing and making conclusions? If yes, that STEM toy is helping children utilize the scientific method.
2. The toy should be engaging, entertaining and fun for kids.
This second prerequisite is a little more subjective, but if a toy both introduces children to STEM subjects and the requisite critical thinking skills as well as being fun and engaging, it qualifies as an effective STEM / STEAM toy.
So what should parents be on the lookout for when considering a potential purchase?
A compelling STEM / STEAM toy stimulates both sides of the brain. The left side of the brain is typically identified with the analytical thinking associated with STEM subjects. Things like computation, logical reasoning, mathematics, thinking in words, logic and facts. The right side of the brain is traditionally linked with more intuitive types of thinking. Things like imagination, creativity, art, rhythm, feelings, emotions and visualization.
Of course, the toy should emphasize the underlying importance of STEM fields of study. But the child’s experience needs to be enjoyable so that they are motivated to engage with it consistently.
The “one size fits all” that some modern toys utilize is not considered adequate by today’s parents. Parents request (and educational research confirms the effectiveness of) “open-ended” individualized educational environment for children to find their own way. It’s no surprise that different kids have different ways of learning. Most parents considering a STEM / STEAM toy for their children appreciated products that provide multiple ways of teaching, learning and interacting.
Another concern voiced by parents is: does this STEM / STEAM toy provide real-world, practical examples of scientific concepts? It’s one thing for kids to learn about scientific theories in a classroom. But it’s another thing entirely for kids to see functional examples of these scientific theories in action. When kids learn about Newton’s law of universal gravitation in school, it can seem abstract to a lot of them. But when they are shown how gravity pulls them down a slide at the playground, it provides children with a concrete example to bring these concepts into focus. A good STEM / STEAM toy will help children draw the connection between scientific theories and real-life application.
The importance of creativity, art and imagination was also mentioned by nearly every parent who responded to Toy Association researchers. Albert Einstein said imagination was far more important than knowledge. And it is the imagination and unconventional thinking of future generations that will stimulate progress, leading to new inventions and modes of experiencing and understanding our universe. An effective STEM / STEAM toy will encourage children to think creatively, not simply by memorizing and regurgitating facts, but by understanding and expanding upon the fundamental concepts behind traditional STEM areas of study.
The importance of problem-solving was also a key concern for many parents interviewed. Allowing children to identify problems through trial and error and then to figure out solutions themselves not only boosts confidence, but also encourages kids to develop a universal skill set that applies to all areas of life. STEM / STEAM toys present children with several ways to improve and expand their problem-solving ability, such as teaching logical thinking, which is foundational to computer programming.
And finally, a majority of parents want the toy to not only be age-appropriate for the child, but to include a curriculum that is parent-friendly and allows them to guide the child in understanding and achieving well-defined objectives. This can be accomplished in numerous ways, including: support materials for parents, briefing videos to bring parents up to speed on basic STEM / STEAM subjects, helpful web pages that offer assistance and answer commonly asked questions, and a host of other means that increase confidence and promote parental involvement.
Types of STEM toys
Construction toys typically include standardized pieces that allow for the formation of larger and more complex models. The most popular example of a construction toy set is the brand LEGO. Construction toys offer numerous psychological benefits for children, including developing social skills by cooperating in collaborative tasks, and improved spatial scores on cognitive tests by children who completed construction models.
Much like language, computer code is a sequence of inputs and outputs that must be arranged in the proper order for the desired outcome to occur. Most coding toys aim to teach children the basics of programming by having them arrange physical representations of computer code, such as toy blocks, in the proper order, so they can learn and better visualize the correct sequences of coding commands.
With screen time and distance learning for all ages increasing drastically in the past several years, parents are looking for more productive ways for their kids to use their computers. Popular learning apps present educational material in fun and entertaining ways, such as games, amusing lectures and storyline-based videos.
While science class may not excite some kids, nearly all children love real interactive science experiments. Popular science kits aim to teach children the basics of biology, astronomy, chemistry, physics and other branches of science through interactive and fun activities. You’ll often see science kits include things like: growing crystals, building planetary models, digging for ‘fossils’, growing butterflies and many more.
But there’s one category that offers even more interactivity and innovation than all the others combined: AI robots for kids.
Benefits of AI robots for kids
The newest generation of AI robots combine nearly all of the benefits of every type and genre of STEM / STEAM toys. In fact, most researchers and educators don’t even classify them as “toys.” Because AI robots are interactive, employ dee -learning and mimic human personality traits like facial expressions and emotions, most researchers see AI robots for kids as interactive educational devices.
One of the major benefits of AI robots is active learning. Most kids learn more effectively by participating in the process, instead of simply staring at a screen or listening to lessons. In an active learning scenario, the robot could ask a question to the child and the child can answer the robot. If the correct answer is given, a certain reward might be employed, such as a short song, a dance move by the robot or a congratulations offered to the child. If an incorrect answer is given, the robot could revisit key parts of the lesson with the child.
The most cutting-edge AI robots employ a conversational approach, learning the child’s name and personalizing the interaction. This individualized approach makes the interaction much more meaningful for the child and increases the chances of engagement in the future. Kids can ask them questions and be given answers about an infinite range of subjects (albeit tailored and filtered by human professionals for child-appropriateness). This makes the AI robot more like an interactive, educational friend than a simple toy.
The newest generation of AI robots also come equipped with a native app platform that allows both the parent and child to explore a host of educational STEM / STEAM areas of study. The biggest benefit of learning from an AI robot is the fact that it can keep children entertained through two-way conversations, storylines, videos, games, quizzes and other fun and engaging task-oriented activities.
The bottom line: want to boost your kid’s STEAM skills? Try using an AI robot!
With STEM / STEAM skills only becoming more crucial to future success, there’s arguably no easier way to introduce your child to these traditionally complex subjects than through an interactive AI robot. In a recent survey, 76% of parents agreed that AI toys and robots can help their kids learn more compared to traditional toys. By inculcating an interest in STEM / STEAM subjects early and in a fun and engrossing manner, you can give your child the best opportunity to develop a lifelong love of learning — and create highly transferable skills.
One notable standout in the educational STEM / STEAM AI robot space is the Miko series of AI robot learning coaches. Miko 3 represents the current generation of these robots, while we expect to release a more conversationally-focused robot with an emphasis on individualized learning paths. Dubbed Miko Mini, this new robot is slated for a fall 2023 release.
The Miko robots employ an active-learning, conversational style to teaching children. Instead of just playing lessons, the children interact with Miko, asking questions and giving answers when prompted. Miko also displays human personality characteristics like facial expressions specifically designed to elicit emotional responses in human observers and personalizing the experience by remembering the child’s name and preferences..
There are a range of native apps available on Miko that can guide parents and children through STEM / STEAM subjects in a playfully educational manner in a game-like structure designed to foster engagement. Miko makes education enjoyable and entertaining. Miko houses a wide range of learning opportunities with its integrated platform that offer classes from the most renowned educators from across the globe, and includes instruction in STEM / STEAM topics such as computer programming. Playing with Miko represents a healthier and more interactive alternative to passive activity on phones and tablets.
In addition to the native apps, Miko Max offers more than 50,000 hours of educational content spread across thousands of games, educational videos, coding, STEM / STEAM subjects, music, yoga, physical fitness and more.
Once you’ve done your research and made a decision, make sure to help guide your child and join them in learning about these critical skills. Research has shown that parents who involve themselves in the learning process give their children the best shot at developing and maintaining an interest in STEM / STEAM subjects.