This week marks the first full week of summer, and for many, the extended hours of sunshine, the opportunity to play outdoors and the break from classroom learning for students makes the Polar Vortex of 2014 almost tolerable. Almost.
To those of us in the science education business, summer is an exciting season, but one that makes our youth's minds vulnerable. While our school children receive a much-needed break from textbooks and tests, it's enough of a disruption in their schooling that they can actually start to lose what they have worked incredibly hard to learn. It's known as the "summer brain drain" -- and it's real.
Studies show that on average, students lose between one to three months' worth of learning during a long summer vacation. Low-income students experience even greater learning losses. This means teachers often spend the first four or more weeks of school re-teaching material that students forgot over the summer.
We can't let learning slide this season. As a nation we have access to incredible free tools and resources that will spark creativity, curiosity and interest in subjects ranging from art and science, to literature and math. We at the Museum of Science and Industry believe in this so strongly that we offer a free program on our website called Summer Brain Games which gives participants recipes for science activities using common household items to learn about engineering, design and even physics.
Learning happens everywhere, not just in school. It happens in homes and after-school programs and museums and libraries. In fact, the learning that happens out of school has a tremendous impact on children because it reinforces concepts learned in the classroom without feeling like more school time. There is a wealth of options wherever you reside:
Visit your local library. Many large library systems such as New York, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle offer excellent summer reading programs. Chicago's Public Library not only offers a phenomenal opportunity to get kids reading, but also one that includes hands-on activities with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
STEM education creates critical thinkers and inspires our next generation of innovators. And don't tell the kids, but it's good for them, too. Most jobs of the future will require a basic understanding of math and science, and 15 of the 20 fastest growing jobs in the next decade require more significant STEM preparation.
Take the time to visit museums. Today's museums and science centers are the best they've ever been. Many offer free classes, lectures and events that introduce kids to innovators, artists and subject matters that help them look at our world in new ways.
Turn to Pinterest! It offers a treasure-trove of ideas and activities that can fill many empty hours of summer and not break the bank. It's one of the leading sites that educators and parents turn to for inspiration, and it will be obvious why after only a few minutes of checking it out.
Get outside. Dig in the dirt. Study the clouds. Notice the spirals in a sunflower. Observation is a skill needed in every job. Ask a child questions about what they see and why it looks that way. Encourage them to write or draw about it, look up their questions in a book at the library or ask others. Start a dialogue and I promise that the conversation has the potential to be interesting and memorable for you both!
Make it fun. A trip to the beach or ice cream shop can go from mundane to inspirational with the right encouragement. And you will be creating a family memory that will last much longer than that melting ice cream cone or sand in your shoes.
Remember during these long summer days: There's science in popsicles and math in seashells. There's a future architect within every fort-builder and an innovator to be found tinkering in the garage. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, educator, business leader or retiree, we have a real stake in fostering learning all year, but it's especially fun and meaningful in the summer.