Kathy Ceceri: How Great STEAM Kits Inspire Invention
I’ve taught Maker-style enrichment programs for kids for over a decade, and I’ve written about teaching kids STEAM concepts at home for even longer. My books show readers how to make light-up paper designs and develop their own video games. And my workshops (like my upcoming Build BOTS! online workshop for Maker Camp) let kids design and build working projects, using just a few basic electronics and everyday stuff.
During the pandemic, I’ve heard from parents and teachers who are eager to find resources that can get children excited about science, technology, engineering, art, and math – and make it fun! That’s why I’m always on the lookout for ways to encourage kids to think up their own inventions, like ChiTag’s Young Inventor Challenge.
To me, invention combines the energy and creativity of making art with the practicality and attention to detail of engineering. And letting kids test out and refine their wild ideas into a marketable product is a great way to teach STEAM!
While I’m definitely a big fan of DIY, I hold a place in my heart for well-made science and technology kits. They can be a great stepping stone to new areas of exploration. And right now, they can be a great way to keep kids learning away from the ever-present computer screen.
The STEAM kits I enjoy and recommend all share some features I believe make them great learning tools:
1. Thoughtful Design. Some kinds of kits provide everything you need to build the project, so you can jump right in without having to stop and find some tool or supply. They’re perfect for parents who don’t have the time, inclination, or confidence to guide their kids through a STEAM project. And I’ve used them myself to help me get started with a new craft or experiment I might want to share with students.
On the other hand, for my own workshops, I lean towards kits that encourage you to add crafts materials and household or classroom supplies. They really let kids exercise their inventor muscles. Two that I have used in my classes over the years are the Makey Makey invention kit, a microcontroller board that lets you use anything conductive as a computer key, and the PinBox 3000, a put-together cardboard pinball machine base that invites you to design your own playboard from anything you can find.
2. Quality Construction. As any Maker can tell you, it’s worth getting the best tools you can afford. The same goes for children’s STEAM kits. It doesn’t matter how complete your kit is, if it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. And for classroom use, educators need kits that can stand up to a lot of use – and misuse! I give extra points to any kit that has tools I can save to use on other projects.
3. Help When You Need It. I don’t have a background in engineering or technology. A lot of times, I need a little more scaffolding to help me figure out how to use a tech toy or tool. Well-written printed instructions (in clear English) are always appreciated – and easy to access and refer back to. Online tutorials and videos are helpful, too (and can be updated as needed). Best of all is a troubleshooting guide, or even a live person to chat with online or by phone. That extra layer of support can be a life saver!
4. A Place to Find New Ideas. One question I always ask toy reps who tout the educational value of their products is what resources they offer teachers and parents. A selection of open-ended lesson plans, how-to videos, and webinars are an invaluable resource for educators. Even a social media feed can be a wonderful place to share ideas and network with other users and fans.
5. Room to Grow. As I said, kits can serve many needs. Even a simple, well-made kit can introduce you to new skills and concepts by providing guidance and all the supplies you need. Kits that let you keep going with expansion packs, or that combine with other kits, build upon that base. They point kids towards different ways of using the same materials, and get their imagination and creativity going. But kits that suggest ways to go beyond what’s been pre-made, and let you experiment with stuff around you, are probably the most powerful of all. They bust open doors to all kinds of possibilities, and launch kids on the road towards becoming real inventors.