Weekend adventures for the family can be a source of fun and escape anytime of year but these outings can also serve as a perfect opportunity to sneak in some STEM.
More focus is continually placed on the importance of getting kids involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to prepare them for their futures. But it isn’t always easy to get children excited about anything related to education.
Thankfully, even while summer and school breaks can lead to the dreaded “brain drain,” these are also perfect times to explore new places with STEM-related activities. In fact, parents can slip STEM fun into their children’s daily lives all year long! Every day can be an opportunity to have fun while learning, and with these tips, you won’t even have to convince your children to put on their thinking caps.
STEM AT THE LAKE
Many families flock to the lakes of Oklahoma for all-season fishing, boating and nature. During the warmer months, playing in the water, making sandcastles or collecting pebbles are not only time-honored family activities but great opportunities to learn.
Head out to Foss Lake in western Oklahoma for one of the state’s sandiest beaches. Located near the town of Foss, this lake boasts more than 60 miles of shoreline, making it the largest lake in the area. Foss Lake is a perfect destination to take advantage of the summer heat but is also a delight in the spring and fall.
Take a magnifying glass in your lake bag to explore the astounding beauty of sand. Made up of eroded rock, minerals and shells, sand is different everywhere. Sand on one side of the beach is unlike the sand on the opposite side. Ask your children what they see in the sand and why they think different pieces are unique.
Take advantage of a windy day to visit Arcadia Lake in Edmond. Learn how wind can make a lake a wild and rough environment, then create your own beach in a bottle. Grab any plastic bottle for this fun activity and then collect materials like sand, water, small rocks and lake plants. Let your little explorers shake the bottle to see what happens to the items within their turbulent lake.
Arcadia Lake also offers kayak rentals throughout the year so throw on your life jacket and explore the world of physics by propelling your kayak through the water. Ask your little scientist how she or he thinks the paddles help move the boat. Experiment with deep strokes and shallow strokes and compare each with your speed. Play around with balance by rocking the kayak (just don’t tip over!).
Arcadia Lake has a park entry fee of $6 per car on weekdays and $7 per car on weekends, covering up to five people in each car. Kids under the age of 13 must have a life jacket on while in the water.
Lake Eufaula in eastern Oklahoma has plethora of sand on its beaches, making it the perfect warm weather destination for this next experiment. Satisfy your children’s “ick” factor by making sand slime, which also makes a cool gift for your kids to take home to friends.
Mix 1/2 cup of white glue and 1/2 cup of water in a bowl. Add 1 cup of sand. After mixing the sand, add 1/4 cup of liquid starch and stir. When it’s mixed well, add in another 1/4 cup of liquid starch. Let the gooey mixture sit for about 10 minutes, and then have fun playing with the moldable slime. Talk about how glue contains polymers that cause a reaction with the starch called cross-linking. The polymer molecules stick to each other and form a slime-like consistency when cross-linked with starch.
Return to Lake Eufaula in the fall for naturalist programs and activities open to adults and children to learn about the natural world and wildlife living in the area. A winter fishing trip mixes biology with fun. Talk about what kinds of fish are native to Oklahoma, and use your bait as a good example of how big fish eat little fish to survive. Cleaning fish can become a lesson on anatomy by pointing out fins, organs and gills.
The best thing about nature is that STEM is built in, a science incubator if you will. Simple hikes can teach little ones about math, physics, engineering and more.
If hiking at Lake Thunderbird in Norman in the winter months, try tossing different sized rocks into the water and talk about why bigger rocks make bigger splashes. Place some sticks across a creek to show how fallen logs make natural bridges for animals or bugs.
Lake Thunderbird State Park’s Discovery Cove Nature Center is a perfect place to visit when the weather is chilly. Open five days a week, this center houses displays of native animals, local snakes and historic artifacts. Kids will also learn how to track animals, cook in a Dutch oven and fish through scheduled programming.
Learn about the power of the sun by collecting both dry and fresh leaves at the Great Salt Plains National State Park in northwest Oklahoma. Place a leaf in a safe area like a fire pit or sidewalk and use a magnifying glass to concentrate the light of the sun into a tiny point. Watch in amazement when smoke appears as the sun’s energy burns a hole in the leaf. Talk about why certain leaves burn more easily and how dangerous forest fires can be. Warn your kids that broken glass and water bottles can start forest fires through this experiment.
The Great Salt Plains Wildlife Refuge is the only place in the world where selenite crystals form with an hourglass of sand inside. The salt plains were once a prehistoric ocean, and your family can dig for these crystals from April through October. Bring supplies like a bucket, shovels and plenty of sunscreen and water if you visit during the summer. Keep your eyes open for more than 300 species of birds that call the Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge home.
Take advantage of the milder temperatures of spring and fall with a journey to Roman Nose State Park in Watonga. Bring a journal on your hike to record the number and types of wildlife you see. Mornings and right before dusk are prime times to view deer, hunt for coyote tracks or spot rabbits. If you are hiking in the summer, beware of rattlesnakes and discuss why some snakes are poisonous while others are not.
Map out your hiking route using a run tracker on your smartphone to learn how trails are built and how GPS technology works.
The Three Springs Trail at Roman Nose is a family-friendly hike leading past a waterfall fed by natural springs, into shady forest areas and over a small bridge. While you cross the bridge, inspect it to discover what makes the bridge stable and how the structure was built into the natural environment.
Watching or riding a roller coaster at Frontier City fires up the imagination. Open from April to October with special holiday events for Halloween and Christmas, the park is full of STEM fun. Talk about how roller coasters travel faster on a downhill slope and research how the rollercoaster cars stay on the track.
Demonstrate centripetal force by having your child swing a bucket of water in a circle to observe that water does not splash out even when directly overhead. Then take a ride on Frontier City’s Tina’s Tea Cup Twirl to feel the force in action.
Even walking from ride to ride can be educational. Using your smartphone, track your steps around the park to engage in math exercises to determine how far you walked, how many steps equal a mile, convert miles to kilometers or calculate miles per hour.
STEM ON THE ROAD
Whether you are driving to grandma’s house down the road or across the state, every road trip can become a learning experience. Instead of plugging bored kids into the DVD player, try these tips from the Tulsa STEM Alliance.
Before pumping gas to explore Lake Murray State Park just south of Ardmore, ask your child to predict how many gallons of gasoline it will take to fill up the tank. Lake Murray is open year round, so visit the trails in the winter and again in the summer to see how the natural world looks different. Take kayaks out to explore how the water acts in cold versus warm weather.
Instead of driving, squeeze in an engineering study by taking the Heartland Flyer Amtrak train to Ardmore, located just minutes north of Lake Murray. Bring along a book about the history of trains.
Pay attention to which direction you’re traveling when you are driving. If you’re headed to Weatherford to visit the Stafford Air & Space Museum, ask your kids how they can tell if you’re going north, south, east or west. Pass around a compass to your passengers to demonstrate.
Bio-index your trip by counting how many animals and birds you see while driving to Woolaroc in Bartlesville. Woolaroc was the ranch of oil baron Frank E. Phillips, and the museum and wildlife area is full of historic artifacts that helped shape the west. As you travel, take note of areas where you see the most of each animal and ponder together why.
No matter where your road trip takes you, entertain your passengers with a box of marbles. Ask your kids to take note of which direction the marbles roll as you speed up, slow down, stop or turn.
If your spring or fall break is a staycation, explore the amazing science in your own backyard. Slip in some engineering by having your children build stick forts, create a dam, build a bird’s nest or even dig a hole that doesn’t collapse in.
Learn about biology through planting a garden, collecting insects, inspecting and pulling weeds or counting birds in the backyard. Create a nature mandala by collecting leaves, flowers, sticks and pebbles. Place your nature items in a pile and arrange them in pictures and patterns. See if you can create a fish or a tree using the items collected. Try building a stone maze out of rocks in the yard. In the summer months, talk about why some items float in a pool while others sink. While searching for bugs, talk about camouflage and watch how insects adapt their colors and shapes to their environment.
Whatever your vacation entails, the opportunity to add fun learning experiences is endless. Your children’s passion for exploration can be the perfect gateway into STEM family fun.