Toys based in science, technology, engineering and math are not only more commonplace, making educational and fun holiday gifts, they can even inspire a lifelong career, according to experts. Robotic toys such as this can introduce kids to industry concepts and are even loaned free of charge to local educators through the Wright-Patterson Educational Outreach “WOW! on Wheels” program. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kwame Acheampong)

Put STEM toys on shopping list to entertain, inspire

From programmable drones and growing crystals to coding robots kids build themselves, toys based on science, technology, engineering and math are expected to grow globally close to 10 percent in the next few years, according to a report by Technavio. Besides making fun holiday gifts this year, STEM toys can open up a world of possibilities according to experts.

“The earlier students are given the chance to investigate STEM topics the more likely they are to develop an interest which could lead to a STEM career,” said Angel Callahan, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Educational Outreach Wizards of Wright! Program manager.

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WOW! visits area classrooms to teach students about STEM through demonstrations and hands-on activities.

“Occupations in STEM are growing, and the more opportunities we can give to our children, the better off their futures will be,” Callahan said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM fields are expected to grow more than 9 million jobs by 2022. However, the United States only confers roughly 10 percent of the global total of science and engineering degrees, with China and India conferring 47 percent, creating significant opportunities for American students, according to a recent White House STEM Education Strategic Plan released this month.

STEM-related toys at an early age can spark an interest that lasts a lifetime, but with so many to choose from, it can be hard to decide on which ones are the most beneficial. Callahan says to focus on toys that are active and engaging instead of simply something to watch passively.

“Many STEM toys speak to all parts of the child by incorporating art and creativity as well as technology. Building and engineering toys fit the STEM genre, as well as toys and games that introduce students to coding and programming,” Callahan said. “The best toys are the ones that increase thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. In young children a focus on hand-eye coordination and spatial skills is important because children learn through building, manipulating and creating mental images of what they want their toys to do.”

There’s a wide assortment available and, best of all, STEM toys don’t have to be high-priced or overly complicated to be effective or fun, according to Callahan.

“The WOW! program uses hundreds of different STEM education materials ‘toys’ that parents and teachers know are teaching materials,” Callahan said. “They use everything from bubble solutions and household items to magnets, circuits, and optic lenses. The material that a child learns from has less to do with the material, and more to do with what is done with it.”

Callahan reminds holiday gift buyers that too much of anything can be bad. Like anything device-based, moderation is often key to a healthy balance.

“Time limits should be in place, games and apps should be monitored, and the when and where should be considered,” Callahan said. “Each child is unique and the benefits of technology to one could be the down-fall for another. If a child’s ability to handle relationships and school-work shows a noticeable difference, one way or another, technology could be that determining factor.”

Callahan encourages gift buyers to consider STEM toys to inspire America’s next wave of innovators as well as taking advantage of what Wright-Patterson’s Educational Outreach office has to offer.

Besides WOW!, there are programs available starting in elementary school and going all the way through college, to include the FIRST Lego League, Scanning Electron Microscope Educators, STARBASE and Leadership Experience Growing Apprenticeships Committed to Youth programs.

For more information on these programs and more go to www.wpafbstem.com or call 656-2273.