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Bridging the gap between STEM and play


STEM education is a broad and vibrant array of challenges and opportunities. However, this facet of education is still underrepresented, as many adults have strained relationships with STEM subjects. If you have ever uttered the phrase, “I am not a maths person,” or something along those lines, you are not alone. Upon researching education and STEM, I have noticed that it’s not about the learner– it’s more about how the learner is educated that allows them to foster either passion or distaste for the subjects. We at Cybernews Academy wanted to explore how STEM education is conducted and how science, technology, engineering, and maths could be approached differently. We spoke to four individuals with a background in STEM education to discuss the avenues that can be taken to inspire more passion for these subjects. Specifically, we wanted to highlight the intersection between STEM and play and how toys can be used to inspire the next generation of tech professionals.

Now, let’s meet our panel:

  • Paulina Balcetyte, Primary School Teacher at Gedimino Miesto Mokykla and Master’s student at Kaunas Technology University, Lithuania
  • Anta Aizpuriete-Krolmane, Education Psychologist at Salas Primary School and Psychologist at Riga Technical University, Latvia
  • Dr. Shirely Dissler, CEO of BrickEd and adjunct professor at High Point University, North Carolina
  • Dr. Lydon J B Nixon, Assistant Professor at the School of Applied Data Science at Modul University of Vienna, Austria

We spoke to our panelists about the impact of play on STEM subjects and how adults can harness the power of play to learn more about science, technology, engineering, and maths.

What is STEM?

STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These four subjects encompass the world that we live in as our lives are dictated by natural sciences, formed by engineering, shaped by technology, and led by mathematics. Over the years, STEM education has evolved from simply studying from textbooks to include a more interactive experience for learners. Dr. Shirley Dissler, the CEO of BrickEd and More, commented on the evolution of STEM subjects: “Back when I was in college, we mainly thought about physics, chemistry, biology, and hard sciences. Now, STEM is evolving into a transdisciplinary integrative approach to philosophy and is more about how we learn.” Our perception and understanding of these subjects have changed, demonstrating that STEM is fundamental to our continuous evolution. These subjects tell us about our world, inspire innovation, and share a common focus on problem-solving and critical thinking. Together, these four formidable subjects foster a fast-growing industry and a growing community of professionals.

STEM subjects of study

If you are already interested in STEM, you can pursue a degree in all these fields. Most undergraduate programs are bachelor of science degrees. However, other degrees fall under separate titles. For example, you could take a bachelor’s degree in applied sciences, engineering, or architecture. Our understanding of STEM subjects has broadened drastically and expanded to encompass more disciplines. STEM subjects are interdisciplinary fields of study that contain multiple topics. If you plan on undertaking a computer science degree, you will naturally complete various studies in mathematics. This, in part, makes STEM subjects particularly engaging, as you can learn and understand multiple disciplines simultaneously.

STEM is made up of these significant areas of study:

  • Natural, physical, and life sciences
  • Computing, electronics, and other tech-related disciplines
  • Civil, electrical, mechanical, and all different types of engineering
  • Mathematics or any other field that involves the application of mathematic principles

The importance of STEM education

Why is STEM education so important? What’s the point of learning about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? As we have explored before, STEM is in everything. It is in the buildings we inhabit, the roads we walk, the food we eat, the drinks we drink. STEM is a naturally occurring topic that everyone encounters daily. As science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are in everything, the education surrounding the subjects is crucial in understanding the world around us. STEM education also encourages core skills like critical thinking and problem-solving while connecting us with other core subjects.

How STEM should be taught

Just because STEM is an everyday occurrence doesn’t mean the study of STEM should be mundane. These topics should be taught engagingly and practically, showing that these disciplines are vital to our daily lives. Dr. Dissler commented on how this facet of education is conducted at her university. “When I teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics classes, I teach integrative STEM programs. We look at science, technology, engineering, and maths as more of a tool.” Using STEM as a tool is essential in navigating and understanding our world. STEM is the secret to unlocking knowledge of how things work and how we should use them. Therefore, learning STEM should represent the world around us: challenging, exciting, and engaging.

The importance of play in education

The role of play in education allows people to foster a new relationship between themselves and their chosen subject. We all know that play is vital for kids to grow and develop their cognitive functions and motor skills. But play is equally as important for adults as it is for children. To understand why play is essential, we must first understand what play is. The Oxford Dictionary defines play as “doing something for pleasure, as children do.” I believe that play is a space in which creativity, imagination, and skill converge. Therefore, play in education is extremely important as learning through play supports content retention and active engagement. Paulina Balcetyte, a primary teacher at Gedimino Miesto Mokykla, Lithuania, explained that “playing with toys helps with cognitive function as you usually have to solve, create, and build something.” This naturally relates to the industry as you must learn how to solve problems in every job. Paulina raised an interesting point: "Creativity and cognitive skills to solve problems” are integral to any professional career. All problems will look different, so solving them requires new and innovative solutions.

Play promotes practice

This understanding of play is integral to learning as a person feels like they aren’t learning when engaged in a pleasurable activity. Therefore, engaging in something fun and educational will usually allow a person to continue pursuing this activity. The American Psychological Association (APA) states that “practice greatly increases the likelihood that students will permanently remember new information.” Through repetition, students will naturally become more adept at a topic, bringing about “cognitive gains” and boosting a student's motivation to learn. Furthermore, practice promotes automaticity, which “is usually only achieved through extensive rehearsal and repetition. Automaticity frees up students' cognitive resources to handle more challenging tasks.” So, if more people are having fun while learning, the likelihood of retaining that information, repeating the activity, and developing automaticity is higher. A successful student is a student who practices, and a successful educator facilitates a space in which learning is fun. Dr. Dissler is that educator. She told us that her goal is to get kids into a flow state where they want to go home and practice on their LEGO bricks even when they’re done doing math in school.

The importance of play in adulthood

As mentioned, play can help build upon different cognitive skills that aid an adult's professional development. Dr. Dissler, the adjunct professor at High Point University, North Carolina, explained that she teaches her graduate students through play. “My classes in higher education were taught playfully. When my students come into my math class, they don’t write. They use manipulatives to prove everything for the first two weeks. They aren’t allowed to write. Similarly, my science method classes are all experimental. We have a unit on robotics and work with LEGO bricks in biology. We tend to stay away from rigid methods of learning vocabulary and definitions.” Dr. Dissler suggests that we should “get away from flashcards” and start working with our hands, as this helps a person retain information more efficiently. Dr. Dissler also teaches a “Design Thinking for Education” course where students have to cover units and discuss the creativity behind them. She said: “We discuss how people should be engaged in education and that gap between where kids learn to play as young children and where you lose your desire to play as an adult.”

The benefits

This gap between play in childhood and adulthood should be bridged as play has a plethora of different benefits. Some studies show that play positively impacts stress, can boost your well-being, and could even improve your physical health. Dr. Dissler has used LEGO brick kits to help adults overcome and process complex emotions. “In my team building sessions, adults build a model that represents something they’ve struggled with.” This is used to present that the thing a person was concerned about wasn’t such a struggle. She has even done sessions that help adults understand themselves more deeply. “I’ll have people build a model that discusses a personality trait about themselves that they want to present to others. It’s a very social-emotional activity. I’ve had people cry in a session before because they got to the heart of what was bothering them.” This is an example of how play has far-reaching effects that can benefit you in ways you could have never imagined. In addition, creative exploration allows you to navigate your surroundings in a new way and helps you understand the topic differently. Which is why STEM and play fit perfectly together. No matter your age, you can observe the world and how things work in a new light.

STEM Skills learned through play

Educational psychologist Anta Aizpuriete-Krolmane suggests that learning STEM requires critical thinking, and you need to have the ability to solve problems. She believes these skills can be “cognitively enhanced” by learning STEM through play. Anta states that learning STEM through play can have a positive effect later on in a person's professional development. “Learning through play helps you on a professional level, as you already have experience problem solving and understand how things work. Most importantly, this can help you deal with complicated problems.” Not only does play set young adults up for the workforce, but it can also positively impact how adults function in the workplace or their academic environment. As stated previously, play has a plethora of different benefits that can help you perform in your everyday life.

The evolution of educational toys

Educational toys have existed for thousands of years and have been used to teach children and adults worldwide. These toys have come in various forms, from wooden alphabet blocks to the archaic abacus. Now, new toys vastly differ from the simple wooden blocks being developed. Paulina gave a few examples of these new software and toys used in her classes. “We use robots in informatics class for learning about spatial thinking. We used two types of robots– one of them looks like a bee; they are called Bee-bots, and the other ones, they say, look like dogs, which are called Photon.’ She expressed that robots are a great educational tool to use (for all ages) as they engage students to their full potential. Paulina mentioned that these toys can produce sound and light and move with the help of a joystick or by being programmed. “When we are using the robots, everyone’s engaged,” which helps students retain information and makes them feel excited about learning STEM subjects. Robots are great all-around toys to use for STEM, and they’re used all over the world. Dr. Dissler spoke about the different toys she uses to teach STEM subjects. “I use a lot of toys to help students learn about math. For example, we use a robot's wheels to measure distance. The added bonus is that these students use toys and don't realize they're learning math.”

That’s smart

There are a range of incredible resources out there that can help you get into science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. Paulina recommends Smart Games, a game brand that helps with critical thinking, cognitive, and spatial functions. Alongside this game brand, the software Scratch is also an innovative platform that allows wannabe coders to create various games. Paulina explained, “It's a platform where you can quickly learn programming because it's programming in a standard language, using sentences. There are different blocks, and you write a sentence to code them, but then you can export these sentences into standard code.” She mentioned, "You can create many wonderful creations like games or cartoons.” These programs are great for STEM as they engage students while teaching them complex subjects like coding. Programs such as Scratch highlight creativity as another competency needed to immerse students in STEM subjects. Similarly, Dr. Dissler gave a few great examples of software and toys that can be used to promote STEM subjects. “I like Minecraft for education. It’s wonderful if you’re using games to teach content to pre-service teachers and college kids.” Dr Dissler aims to inspire students to employ creativity to solve problems. “I think STEM is important, and it all stats with play, imagination, and creativity.”

Creativity and STEM subjects

Albert Einstein, the famous physicist responsible for developing the theory of relatively, once said that creativity is intelligence having fun. Einstein’s now popular proverb is a common trait that resonates deeply with STEM professionals. Dr. Dissler states, "STEM is a creative part of the brain yet to be unleashed and let go.” To fully engage with science, technology, engineering, and maths subjects, one has to harness the inner creativity that STEM subjects exhibit. According to Lyndon J. B. Nixon, the value of what a student has learned must be translated into a fun activity that someone can do creatively. Once students have understood the theory or have discovered a new technique, Dr. Nixon implements fun tasks so his students “immediately see the value of what they’ve learned.”

Demonstration days

Although STEM and creativity don’t appear synonymous, there are some ways that organizations have combined creativity with STEM, such as through educational camps or demo days for universities. Dr. Nixon mentioned one of the demonstration days at Modul University of Vienna as a vehicle to display STEM as a creative field of study. “There are annual days in Austria where universities will demo various scientific demonstrations to school groups. When preparing for these days, we focus on fun and creative ways to excite future students about science, technology, engineering, and maths.” Dr. Lyndon states that “the point of these events is not only to entertain the students but to let them go away with a new appreciation for computer programming, data science, or AI.”

STEM camps

Similarly, Dr. Dissler comments on STEM camps and how children and adults are engaged at these events. “I’ve noticed that kids would be more engaged, and their parents are more committed because they are entertained. I’ve had numerous kids and parents say that they wish that school could be more like this, and I thought, I don’t understand why it can’t be like this. More learning is going on here.” Dr. Dissler decided to model her classes based on hands-on learning that promotes memory retention and helps engage different types of learners.

STEM is an integral part of education, representing a dynamic and essential facet of learning that transcends traditional subject boundaries. As our understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics continues to evolve, so does how we approach, learn, and teach these subjects. STEM isn’t simply about memorizing facts or figures but about fostering a deeper understanding of the world through exploration, problem-solving, and creativity. Through our discussions with STEM experts, we revealed that the key to inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals is through play. Play is not only for children; it is a powerful tool that can aid in cognitive development and promote a deeper understanding of these complex topics. By participating in enjoyable, interactive, and engaging activities, children and adults can develop and retain core skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and memory retention, all while cultivating a lifelong love for STEM subjects.