It's no secret that the U.S. is at a crossroads when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. The U.S. is losing its lead in both research and development and creation of new science and engineering graduates. According to the National Math and Science Initiative, in 2008, 31 percent of U.S. bachelor degrees were issued in science and engineering fields, compared with 61 percent in Japan and 51 percent in China. To create more scientists and engineers, it is essential to create an early love for science and there is no better way to encourage that love than to capture that early curiosity with play.
Yet many of the toys and apps that our kids are playing with do nothing to encourage an early love of science. Whether our kids are building virtual cake pops or crushing candy on a tablet or smashing cars together, we are missing an opportunity to answer their questions about the science and engineering in the world around them.
According to research conducted by PBS, at the age of 2, children's language skills are developing rapidly and much of that development is driven by not only on their reading and writing skills but also on their curiosity. Combining these developmental milestones with the power of storytelling creates the perfect platform for fostering an early love of STEM. But as parents, we wondered where are those stories?
As former theme park engineers, we helped major companies tell amazing stories to people all over the world. If we said the names Elsa and Anna, or Lightning and Mater, most parents would immediately recognize the power that stories have to capture the hearts and minds of kids. So why aren't we using those amazing stories to answer kids' questions about the science and engineering they encounter everyday?
In our search, we did find there are actually a few products out there that use storytelling to encourage a love of learning about STEM. They all seem to offer something a little different, so parents can choose what makes the most sense for them. Probably the most popular late-comer is Goldiblox, a storybook and building block style board game targeted to girls. It works to solve a need for attracting girls to Mechanical Engineering via a relatable character. Snap Circuits is a popular building kit that teaches children about Electrical Engineering topics. It doesn't have storytelling, but one could see how powerful adding a book series could make this even more engaging and relatable. One growing popular mix of both Mechanical and Electrical Engineering is Roominate. Roominate is a house-building story-telling mechanism targeted towards girls. All of the above are targeted towards elementary school children. There is also our connected plush toy called TROBO, which reads stories on iPads across all STEM topics (not just Engineering) to children as early as 2-years-old. All of these are bridging the gap between what has traditionally been seen as a hard-to-reach area of advanced education to an exciting area of early childhood education.
The importance that products like these have is that they plant early seeds. Many children choose what they want to do when they grow up, based on some events that happened in early childhood. Jeremy wanted to be a theme park engineer due to his childhood exposure to Disney. Laurie, Chris's wife is a doctor and wanted be one her entire life, because she helped take care of her ailing grandmother at a very early age. On the other hand, Chris did not know what he wanted to be. Many children don't have mentors who can show them the potential futures they have available. Toys make it possible to make early impressions on children, even when they don't have mentors. Storytelling toys are even better at this, because they create emotion and ignite imagination. Once those two things are triggered, learning becomes fun, and more importantly, it can influence one for a lifetime.