This holiday season, step outside of the proverbial box and give the children in your family a gift that will help them enhance their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. Living in the digital age where computers and the internet rule supreme, we must continue to steer children into STEM fields or eventually, we won’t know how to design and troubleshoot the existing technologies. Most of these gifts will require some adult supervision, which makes these ideal family treats! All of these suggestions retail through brick and mortar stores, except those noted as online only.
- Radio Control Anything
My family always loved remote controlled toys. Helicopters, planes, and cars are staples at Sears, Radio Shack, Hobby Lobby and Tower Hobbies; lately drones and robots have started to join Santa’s lists and are readily available at most stores. Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Amazon, among other retailers feature the new Star Wars BB-8 Droid, the MiP and robot pets that serve as speakers or accept voice commands. For a more immersive experience into radio control, check out Toys R Us for Robotic Enhanced Vehicles (R.E.V.) and other build your own remote control toy kits. If you are not convinced your girl will like any of these, Polly Pocket and Barbie brand remote controlled cars and accessories can be found in their respective aisles. I have a seen a few robots that let you control them using your smart phone; ask an associate at any of the big box retailers or check Amazon for some product ideas.
This product’s intent is to introduce girls to engineering concepts. Their kits help build confidence in STEM skills, providing components and tools to learn problem solving skills and techniques. Each project is unique and easy to follow; very complex concepts are introduced with visual aids and instructions that the girls can follow on their own. These kits are an alternative to LEGO products, K’Nex and Mega Blocks because they are not just building sets but educational ones.
- LEGO Mindstorms
Robotics are becoming very popular among pre-teens and high school students because most kits are reasonably priced and can be put together very quickly and effectively. This build your own walking and talking robot kit takes making your own AI to another level. It retails for $349, but it contains servos and programming tools that warrant the price tag. There is a competition to design and showcase your own creation with LEGO. Some of the submittals looked like BattleBot contenders.
- Pi-Bot (Online Only)
If the price tag on the LEGO Mindstorms is too high, try the Pi-Bot, a kit to create your own small rover-like robot using C programming and electronic components, with instructions provided for kids 13 and up to execute with adult supervision. The bot retails for $99 and is the inspiration of STEM Center USA, featured in the Shark Tank and produced by two female mechanical engineers! 🙂
- OWIKIT (Online Only)
Amazon has about 4 products of this company in their Top 10 Best Sellers list for robotic kits. Prices range from $20 to $100 and include salt water operated vehicles, robotic arms and first time builder kits. Be it solar or fuel cell powered, you will find a product for your child that will not only spark an interest in engineering and science but also will provide hours of hands on experience with renewable energy alternatives. Their Aluminum Bug and Dino Kits are good alternatives to the robotic kits, and teach kids how to put and fasten together metal structures.
- Microscope, Minerals, Rock or Science Experiment Kit
My mom got me a microscope when I was 6 years old and I still remember all the liquids and plants my friends and I used to prepare slides. Science, mineral, rock and microscope kits start around $15 and can be found in almost every pharmacy, hobby shop and toy store. National Geographic markets an entire line of these products through Toys R Us, and provide support and additional content through their kids division’s website. If these don’t convince you, there are also surveillance and communication kits that link walkie talkies and binoculars to heads up displays and other technologies to teach sound propagation and radio/radar principles.
- Telescope or Star Gazer Kit
Every once in a while, I manage to spot a telescope on a rooftop or balcony in family and teenage drama movies, usually in suburban locations where it makes sense to star gaze. If you have the ability to escape the city once in a while, in clear skies and under safe conditions, purchase a nice telescope with electronic or computer tracking. Add a nice camera with a night vision lens and program the equipment to obtain beautiful long exposure pictures of the heavens. If you live in a big city or urban environment with light pollution a planetarium or constellation projector will be your best bet to recreate the night sky. These are also becoming very popular as night lights. For the Star Wars fans, there is a Death Star Planetarium making the rounds for the Dec 2015 holiday season.
If you need to try any of these toys before hand or would like more immersive experiences, check local STEM events such as First Robotics or LEGO expositions. Your local science and children museums carry some of these brands and have other ideas you could try out, like puzzles or video games. Follow all instructions on the kits to optimize the experience and make sure you always supervise children whenever fire, chemical reactions or electricity is a part of the experience. Use safety equipment whenever necessary, and make sure you purchase these items before starting a project since most kits will not include them. Have fun!