When I first started homeschooling eight or nine years ago, I was terrified of science and higher-level math. How could I, a mere English major, tackle such a difficult area of learning and pass it on to my children? This notion, that children should spend time doing STEAM activities, was just then starting to be batted about. STEAM meant: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math.
Some people say STEM and leave out the Arts. But we won’t be making that mistake in my homeschool.
There’s a lot of pressure on children, these days, to have “world class” skills. Kids are told to think of students half way around the world as their competition. Newspapers love to lament the US’s poor scores on international math and science exams. But I am not discouraged. I know our students have it in them to outshine anyone.
Even though this stuff seemed intimidating to me, I made sure that we started off under a big head of STEAM. And luckily my children were on board, ready to drive the train, and show me how it’s done.
With the help of a few museums, documentaries and science kits, we were able to expose our kids to this STEAM element. Both boys went on field trips to the local science and history museum, as well as to museums in Orlando and Gainesville. Here they experienced a watery world of animals, a whole floor of science activities, a butterfly house, an exhibit on Florida’s geological history and a fossilized mammoth skeleton. They saw exhibits on topics as diverse as dinosaurs and digestion, and watched planetarium shows on the sun,the stars and the moon.
We also went to the zoo frequently, to experience animals up close. We tramped through parks, observing the flora and fauna. We watched all sorts of water creatures at an aquarium in Tampa. We attended a gem and mineral expo and collected lots of beautiful rocks. And those are just some of the things I remember.
Of course, science happens at home as well. The boys studied Biology in books, heard Biology lectures on CD, and did Chemistry experiments from a very elaborate kit. Their sister’s gardening exploits and complete takeover of the backyard for vegetable beds exposed the boys, through osmosis, so to speak, to many sciences, among them, Botany. Agriculture, and Nutrition. Even the sad duty of having to bury a hawk, which we found dead at the end of our driveway, helped to instill in my younger son a sense of the majestic beauty of Florida’s wild birds.
And Physics—well, see Engineering below.
This one is easy for both sons. My older son is all about using computer widgets to create websites, or to post videos, or to create art online. He has used Vimeo, Wix, Twitter, Facebook, various drawing apps, sound effects or music making apps, and thousands of google searches, to learn how to manipulate his own online content. He has always demanded a substantial share of time on any new device in our house, from the first Apple desktop, to iPads, to cameras to the iPhone. In fact, if a device is lying around unattended in a room he enters, chances are, he’ll find a way to get on it.
My younger son wants to pursue technology (specifically, at this point anyway, programming) as a career. He has been participating in Robotics since about this time last year. All year, he has been learning the finer points of Java Programming language, which is for First Tech Challenge robots.
But this was not his first time around the block with programming.
Even though I was the nominal teacher, he basically led a year of Coding classes at co-op, in which he taught the rest of us the building blocks of Python. Before that, he and I worked through a somewhat outdated Windows Programming Course. In it, he learned basic operations, like making buttons on a website. He has helped me many times on this blog. He has also managed to learn C++ and I don’t know how many other languages, in bits and pieces, as needed.
His latest triumph was to create an operational simulated CPU online, which followed a simple program to add numbers, up to a certain point, and then start over. It looked like a circuit board on the screen, and you could see the energy passing through different components, as it performed various parts of the task, retrieving and storing values in memory and passing them through operations. It was absolutely his own idea to do this.
He is also in his second semester of Programming in virtual school. This class has two years of basic computer science prerequisites. He skipped them because he had already done everything. And he is skating through the current class, as well.
Early on, my younger son took an interest in building things. He wanted to know what the tallest buildings were, where they were, and what materials they were made of. A good portion of his first year of homeschooling was spent putting models together.
He built the pyramid-shaped Hotel Luxor in Las Vegas, a hand-made model out of foam board, complete with a flashlight beacon. From various cardboard kits, with impossibly intricate directions, he made the London Bridge, the Tai Pei 101, The Burj Khalifa, Neuschwanstein Castle, the Chrysler Tower, the Taj Mahal, and Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
Of course, he was also building with blocks of various kinds. We started with Legos, getting more and more complex, both in the directions and in the design. Then he went to a wooden block set, much like Jenga blocks, only on a larger scale, and built various structures up to four feet tall, outdoing himself with each one in terms of height, strength, and creativity. We watched a lot of documentaries on architecture throughout the world, and even learned a bit about the physical forces that operate on structures.
My older son, who has autism, preferred the arts. Early on, we spent a lot of time doing things like going to pottery painting shops, or mixing paints, or using stamping kits. We went to art museums and looked at art from medieval to modern. We saw his oldest sister pouring molten iron into a mold and went to all her student gallery exhibits. More recently we even visited a gallery exhibit including the work of artists with autism.
In the past year, my older son has been regularly attending Art Therapy. This has allowed him another creative outlet. Despite his perennially weak fine motor skills, he nonetheless has experimented with many different painting techniques and materials. He has developed not only his own style, but also, a very specific notion of when to continue painting, and when the painting is “done”. Although his paintings differ from his oldest sister’s in that they do not pretend to imitate the real world in a representational or realistic way, they are quite beautiful and could hang in a gallery if he had an interest in displaying them. Which, at the moment, he most decidedly does not.
My older son has always enjoyed having some means to record himself and the products of his imagination. Early on, we had an IFlip, a tiny video recording camera. Then he took over our Apple computer, managing to reset all the passwords at one point. Later, he began filming himself with the pocket camera and, even later, with my iPhone. We went through many apps in pursuit of this interest, including animation apps and iMovie. One of his favorite formats was a cooking show, in which he starred as the chef, and made various edible creations with his “stuffed” animal co-stars. One of the inspirations for his interest in film was probably a wonderful Joey Travolta Film Camp for kids with autism, which he went to a year or two before we started homeschooling.
A year ago, his Art Therapists held a Spring Break animation camp, and he wowed the teachers and fellow campers with his skills. We also developed a Short Film class at co-op a few years ago, where he could show off his abilities in cutting and pasting film clips, and in making voice-overs for animation. I no longer teach the class, but instead, leave it to a much more knowledgeable film buff and Lego animator. But my son still attends the class each fall and learns a bit more each time about the film-making process.
Another area of the Arts that my boys both love is Music. The younger one loves playing the guitar and has mastered many songs, especially over the course of this past school year. He started the year playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen on both the piano and the guitar, then progressed to “Space Oddity” (Ground Control to Major Tom) by David Bowie. He ended the school year with a number of Pink Floyd songs, each more beautiful than the last. Lately he’s been playing the introduction to “Roundabout” by Yes. I basically get a private acoustic concert every day. The bad news is, now he wants an electric guitar.
My other son is much more interested in manipulating recorded music. He has downloaded various apps, such as Garage Band, to record combinations of sounds. He uses these as background music to videos and Power Points he strings together. He also likes collecting sound effects to use in making projects on Adobe Premier Elements, a video editor.
Math was not all workbooks in our homeschool, though there were plenty. When it comes to workbooks, the more colorful, the better.
Math was and continues to be a difficult topic for my older son. The more manipulatives we used, the better his success seemed to be. We did hopscotch to learn subtraction and addition. We posted a multiplication chart for a reminder or the math facts. We practiced various operations, through card games like “War.” We used plastic tiles with numbers and operations on them to make equations. We used the number line, a printed piece of tape stuck to the tabletop, to show physically the “distance” between numbers. He became quite adept at using the calculator, although selection of the proper operation to use has always been a challenge.
With my older son, it helped when I called attention to something more concrete than number theory. For instance, we’d look at the calendar. He has always loved celebrations. We often would celebrate if the sequence of numbers in a date were special in some way. For instance, 08/08/08, or 08/09/10. We talked about leap years and different kinds of numbers, odd, even, prime. We made or purchased pie on Pi day (March 14).
The analog clock was a difficult concept, perhaps because it is so seldom used today. Digital clock reading was never much of a problem. Time runs on base twelve, counting to twelve and only then starting over. This is a strange concept to us in an age so firmly entrenched in decimals. But cartons of eggs and baker’s dozens can actually act as an important prelude to the digital age’ reliance on base 2.
The more relatable to the real world a concept was, the more my older son warmed to it. And involving food made things very relatable, indeed. We would do fractions and measurements by cooking and slicing up things like pizza.
My younger son was more mathematically inclined. He went straight from workbooks to DVDs of Algebra and Geometry. He skipped around Khan Academy when he had a mathematical question, and soon found YouTube tutorials on integers and differentials. In addition, with his robotics club, he was forced to do a fair amount of calculating as the group programmed the team robot. Still, even he printed out and played with manipulatives from time to time. In his portfolio basket this year I found a folded circular shape with many angles drawn on it. That’s right. Even Origami is Math! And lets not forget, Music is Math as well!
Well I’ve told you some of the ways we have integrated these subjects into our routines. How do you do STEAM in your homeschool?