Stepping up to STEM | The Financial Express

Stepping up to STEM

Design thinking is the biggest practical by-product of STEM learning, which encourages and improves cognitive learning through toys.

Stepping up to STEM
STEM, a discovery-led teaching pedagogy, can improve cognitive learning, design thinking and life skills among children.

What do you expect a three-year-old child to do—run, jump, walk or ride a tricycle, draw straight lines or circles, maybe? But Saisha K can complete electric circuits by joining wires, switch on and off electric levers, dismantle containers and put them together, or play with big blocks and shape sorter. This multi-engineering skill is partly innate, partly discovered last year under the guidance of Dr Aarti Bakshi, a developmental psychologist who works with children and young adults on social-emotional learning (SEL) skills.

According to Bakshi, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning has improved Saisha’s cognitive learning, design thinking and life skills. “Children in this age have a strong empathetic mind and amazing critical thinking. Design thinking is the biggest practical by-product of STEM learning, which encourages and improves cognitive learning through toys and thus becomes a resource tool for future jobs,” adds Bakshi, who is a consultant at Saar Education, an education consortium based in Delhi-NCR.

While STEM toys are math-filled and science-rich toys for young geeks to engage and rebuild, the variety of building blocks, puzzles, Rubik’s cubes, and wordplay boxes, bricks, musical instruments, and jigsaw puzzles not only ensure brain development but, when introduced as part of the curriculum, also foster creativity and problem-solving skills.

Seven-year-old Dhruv Varshney has been using an assortment of basic science and robotic kits since the age of two years. “My son spends a couple of hours a week with these toys. At this age, he has significantly more knowledge about physics, chemistry and maths than I had when I was a kid. These can be called toys but have generated enough curiosity for kids to do something unique and experimental,” says Noida’s Chandan Varshney, Dhruv’s father.

While physical learning camps have slowed down during the pandemic, parents have also switched to offline learning to make learning subjects more than just theory. “STEM toys complemented the theory classes greatly, especially in subjects like Maths, Robotics, Coding, AI and Science. My elder daughter is fond of AI learning DIY STEM toys called Troot by Tinkerly and spends 2-3 hours every day on design and prototype, machine learning, plug and play techniques which help develop interest in STEM and get a grip of the concept. It gives them a competitive edge over their peers,” says Jaipur’s Garima Singh, mother of Akshara Meel, 13, and Aanya Meel, 12.

Beyond play

While most STEM toy companies target children in the age group of 3-14 years, the toys are designed pertaining to the development and requirements of each age group. For example, ThinkerPlace, a multiple set of educational STEM DIY kits, provides toys for children between the ages of 6 and 12 years and caters to schools and institutions. “During the pandemic, the reopening of schools encouraged the growth and promotion of STEM. Parents want their children to apply what they learn in school in a creative way. These have become a great option for parents to encourage children to learn beyond books,” says Pune-based Deepti Sharma, director of ThinkerPlace, who is assisting schools in various states to set up innovative STEM labs as a part of the new infrastructure requirement by the ministry of education.

Learning is critical in today’s age as it instills a desire for creativity and teaches critical thinking abilities. “Both parents and educational institutions are understanding that STEM learning can prepare this generation to collaborate to solve some of the world’s most critical issues,” says Sneh R Vaswani, co-founder and CEO of Miko, an advanced STEM robot powered by AI, designed for a variety of applications as it introduces young ones to real-life skills while having fun.

It is also a great way to engage children at home after school and make playtime educational since the average screen time is as high as 2.5 hours among Indian children aged 2–5 years and increases with age. “Parents realise the need to make screen time more meaningful (educational yet fun). While tier 1 cities continue to dominate sales numbers, we have also seen a steady increase in tier 2 cities which account for about 28-30% of our sales,” says Vivek Goyal, CEO and co-founder of PlayShifu, a STEM toy brand which has Orboot (AR-powered globes), Plugo (story-based STEM game kits) and Tacto (board games with digital gameplay).

On the other hand, Tinkerly has seen over 60% of its STEM toy demand arising from Tier 2 cities like Agra, Mysore, Bhopal and Jaipur along with metros like Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru. “Many parents were hesitant in buying STEM toys as they feel that they need to get significantly involved with their children. Therefore, buying was restricted to parents like doctors and engineers. Thus, we launched live classes along with STEM toys enabling students to work with them without requiring their parent’s support. To ease the learning outcomes, we also launched live classes available in Hindi that enhanced the demand from the Tier-2 cities for STEM toys,” shares Sharad Bansal, CEO and co-founder of Tinkerly.

The market is geared up to grow irrespective of schools and colleges opening up. “Parents want something beyond the rote learning that our education system offers. A way to build a love for all things STEM through hands-on experiences,” says Vaishnavi Rangarajan, co-founder and CEO of The Nestery, a community-led e-commerce platform for the modern parent.

Beyond the traditional

Several companies are producing and selling STEM toys beyond board games, dolls and remote-controlled cars. In the past five years, India has seen a surge in demand for mathematical toys on e-commerce stores like Flipkart and Amazon.

With new and unique product offerings and increased awareness about the benefits that STEM toys provide, it has emerged as one of the fastest growing toy categories on Amazon.in. The various STEM toys offered on Amazon.in and across its global marketplaces range from science kits and phygital electronic toys, card games, board games, puzzles and craft kits. “We are witnessing new and emerging small businesses who have seen success on our site by selling toys which teach electronics, robotics, coding, math in a fun way. Small businesses like Einstein Box, Playshifu, Smartivity, Butterfly Edu fields, Playautoma, Avishkaar and Mechanix have been delighting customers with innovative STEM toys. ‘Learning and technology’ is the one of the fastest growing categories under toys and games for Indian sellers globally,” says Manish Tiwary, country manager, India consumer business, Amazon.

The learning portfolio at Flipkart is in the top five categories with activity kits, building blocks and card-based learning as key sub-categories doing well. Traditional learning products like puzzles continue to do well too. “We expect the momentum to continue for the next 12 months and the CAGR for four to six years can be close to 50%,” adds Kanchan Mishra, senior director, consumables (FMCG), general merchandise and home, Flipkart, who maintains the seller and manufacturing ecosystem.

Advantages of STEM learning…

-It helps develop an analytical bent of mind while thinking or planning

-It reduces screen time, improves motor and cognitive skills, offers smarter ways to engage kids rather than stuff toys. It also mitigates gender bias as some toys are unisex

-A hands-on learning approach that enhances their information retention abilities

-It builds problem-solving skills among young minds and develops the maker mindset among kids

-It thinks out of the box to take creativity to the next level and build meaningful projects to solve real-life problems

… And some disadvantages

-If children are not getting instructions in their first language, then they may lose interest in the subjects and develop fear because of improper understanding of the concept

-Lack of experts or parental guidance to properly teach the logic of using STEM toys.

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First published on: 04-12-2022 at 09:56 IST