What is the point of STEM toys?

Playing with Nao Robots at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, Brisbane

Playing with Nao Robots at the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, Brisbane

What’s the point of STEM toys? I was recently asked to complete a survey for STEM educators regarding the benefits of STEM toys. Rather than hide my thoughts in a survey I thought that some of you may be interested to learn about it.

At Coding Kids we use various STEM toys and interactive equipment in the classroom: Makey Makey, mBot, littleBits, 3D printers, lego Mindstorms, and Arduino. We love working with these STEM toys because they allow us to create all sorts of projects and build our own inventions. With the right process and learning environment students can explore new ideas and feel enabled to build their own digital products. These tools support learning about coding, robotics, circuitry as well as design thinking and the development of digital solutions.

I was asked whether there were any differences between the STEM toys that girls choose to play with and what boys choose. From my observation, there are no differences between the toys that girls choose to play with and what boys choose. Both will choose similar toys, however how they play is different. Girls are more likely to play in groups, integrate stories, and create more human-centred inventions. Boys follow the game flavour of the month, which at the moment is Pokemon Go, computer games in general but especially shooting games, and robots that get jobs done.

Littlebits toolbox

Littlebits toolbox

The question of whether there are any significant learning outcomes or benefits from students playing with STEM toys was asked. There are so many STEM toys available at the moment. It's a hot topic. But whether the toys have any learning outcomes is moot. Toys and equipment are just tools. The teaching process and environment are more vital.  

A good tool doesn't improve a bad process or environment.  A bad tool won't hinder a good process and environment, it'll just be a waste of money. But a good tool can power up a good process and environment.     

STEM toys are just toys unless you understand the benefits of STEM education. STEM education develops children to be curious, engaged, empowered, informed, and creative.  Children can become change makers, innovators, inventors and creators.

Suggested readings:

Schools using technology as a marketing gimmick: http://www.codingkids.com.au/blog/2016/7/15/school-use-tech-as-marketing-gimmick

Putting Education in “Educational” Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning: http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/educational-apps.html

An assembled mBot

An assembled mBot