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Schermerhorn: Never too early to instill scientific curiosity

Published: Monday, May 12, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

“School days, school days

“Dear old Golden Rule days

“Reading and ’riting and ’rithmetic

“Taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick”

A lot has changed in education and the world since 1907 when this song – “School Days” – was written.

Fortunately, the hickory stick no longer is a staple of the classroom. Reading, writing and arithmetic, while still very important to any student’s development, are not enough anymore. Now that we are well into the 21st century, we have seen the skills required for most careers evolve rapidly. So rapidly that adults are having to take courses to retool and gain new skills necessary to be vital in the workplace.

Educators have researched and identified the areas in which students of the 21st century must be proficient so that they are adequately prepared for the career path they choose. Like most trends in education, this initiative is known by an acronym – STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Parents can give their children a leg up by starting with small steps. This summer, get your children interested in science.

Start with an “I wonder …” notebook or journal. As you and your child plant seeds in the yard, ask him questions such as, “How do you think this little seed can become a plant with tomatoes?” Listen to his ideas, answer a few of his questions, then leave a few unanswered. The unanswered questions will go into the journal. Give your child guidance as to where he might find the answers, such as an encyclopedia, library book, computer or a neighbor who gardens. Record the answers in the journal. This does not have to be done right away, but give your child a reasonable deadline. Of course, learning to meet deadlines is an important career skill.

Science activities you and your children can easily do include dissecting a worm, examining the parts of a butterfly and talking about the different stages of a butterfly. How about taking your children fishing? Why do fish live in water? How do they breathe? What do they eat? Frogs also are fertile subject matter for discussions on biology. Find a shallow pond and look for tadpoles. Have your children work out the life cycle of a frog. Where do frogs need to live? Have them try to catch one and feel its skin.

Summer nights are great for making scientific discoveries with your children. Lay on a blanket in the backyard on a clear night and gaze at the stars. What is a star? Bring out a celestial map you can print off the Internet and try to identify constellations. Let them tell you what the moon looks like? Is there a man in the moon or was there ever a man on the moon? You can pull up a clip on the Internet of the 1969 moon landing and show it to your children. Fireflies capture the imagination of any child. How do they glow?

For a junior high-aged child, ask her why this century is called the Information Age. Ask her about computers. How does she use them at school, and how does she think technology is used in the business world? Are there other sources of information? What is reliable information and what is less likely to be true?

Driving over a bridge, ask your children how they think it stays up. If it’s a drawbridge over the Chicago River, drive slowly and ask how the bridge can be lifted up and why it needs to be lifted. How many Great Lakes are there, and how were they created? Why was the flow of the Chicago River reversed? At home, give them a box of toothpicks and some clay or glue so they can try to make a bridge themselves.

Parents, you don’t have to do all the legwork for instilling a love of science in your children. McHenry County College is offering half-day and full-day TECH and STEM camps for six weeks from June 16 through Aug. 7. Students can register week by week. For information, go to the McHenry County College website.

The McHenry County Conservation District schedules many one-day family outings in the many conservation areas in the county. Check the Northwest Herald for MCCD’s moon hikes, bird watching, turtle presentation and many other programs throughout the year. The McHenry County History Museum in Union has an entire room devoted to agriculture. For engineering, a trip to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union is a full-day event that is hard to forget.

The wonder of a child is the most precious thing on Earth. Take advantage of it. Immerse yourself in their points of view. You’re most likely to learn things you never knew, especially about your child.

• Leslie Schermerhorn is regional superintendent of McHenry County schools.

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