As a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educator at NASA, I consider it a privilege to be able to inspire and prepare our next generation of discoverer and explorers. And as a parent, it is a bonus to be able to do the same for the one that calls me Mom.

As we look to the future, our children will have jobs to do and problems to solve that we haven’t even imagined yet. How can we help them get ready to take on things that don’t even exist? Building a solid STEM foundation is a great start. STEM is an integral part of our lives, and it is important for students to explore and understand these concepts. This shouldn’t start when students first go to school — it should start well before then.  

STEM is everywhere

STEM education can happen anytime, anywhere. For the last six-and-a-half years, one of my son’s many “classrooms” has been the backseat of my car. He makes observations. He asks (a lot of) questions. We make plans to go to new places and learn new things. And yes, at times he is way more interested in the latest app he has downloaded than discussing the types of clouds we are seeing — but that’s exploring technology, right?

I try to encourage STEM discovery and exploration whenever I can. We even had a STEM-themed Christmas last year. And while I totally got some side-eye when the latest toy fad wasn’t under the tree, we had the best time building a catapult, learning to code a robot and playing board games as a family. There were no lesson plans or guide books. This is “undercover” STEM — he didn’t even realize how much he was learning. Don’t discount the small stuff — it all adds up.

Yes, I am a STEM nerd, especially when it comes to space. But if STEM isn’t your thing, don’t worry. I promise you are fully qualified to help your child get a head-start in this STEM-driven world. Think about things you do on a daily basis and how they tie to STEM. Cooking is an excellent example of STEM in action. There is science (following procedures, creating new compounds), technology (ovens, mixers), mathematics (measuring) and, if you are the same type of cook that I am, usually a little creative engineering. Get your child involved in the process.

Learning everywhere

There are so many little things you can do: go outside and observe our world; watch the space station fly over at night; count trees; build something — or take something apart (more fun); let your child ask all the questions. If you can, help guide them to an answer. If you don’t know, there are wonderful resources out there to help you learn more (NASA has some excellent free resources). Plus, if your child is as tech-savvy as mine, they can probably teach you a thing or two.

The trick here is to keep it simple. You don’t have to do full-blown science experiments or teach your child long division, just nurture a love for learning and STEM. Kids are naturally curious and want to learn. Let them see that you love learning, too, and you can help prepare your discoverer or explorer for whatever the future holds.