Choosing an Online STEM Class for Your Child? Factors to Consider.

boy student video conferencing with classmates

As we enter the fall and begin a new school year, many children will be learning from home. And many children will be spending a lot more time at home than during a typical school year, whether they’re going to school on-site or online. This school year is not going to be normal, and with many in-person activities unavailable, I know that parents are searching for good-quality and engaging learning activities that their kids can do from home.  Finding a good match for your child’s age, interests, skills, and needs can be a challenge, so in today’s article, I’ve suggested some key issues to consider as you explore potential classes for your child.

Online STEM Classes Can Work!

Before the pandemic, online STEM classes for kids were not the norm, but the good news that we learned from this summer’s STEM camps is that online programs can work. The winning formula included smaller classes, shorter session times, incorporating active learning with multiple ways to learn, and in some cases, independent work outside of camp and classes. Kids were happy, learning, and engaging with their fellow students and instructors.

My daughter took an online business entrepreneurship class this summer and loved it! She was exposed to business concepts and topics that she wouldn’t have experienced at her high school, and she created an idea for a business and developed a business plan with another student. The class was highly interactive and engaging, an overall excellent learning environment. It made me realize that live online learning can be both beneficial and enjoyable for kids and teens.

boy student video conferencing with classmates

Choosing a Class for Your Child

There are many factors to consider when choosing an online STEM class. The short list below is based on what I learned from speaking with STEM providers and parents over the summer and early fall, and from my own experience choosing a class for my daughter. I hope they’ll help guide you, first in deciding if an online class is right for your child, and if it is, in finding a good match.

1. What is the gap you are hoping to fill for your child with an online class? In these unusual and stressful times, when your child’s previous routine has been disrupted and their usual after-school activities curtailed, take a step back and ask yourself what your child may need from a class. Are they missing the social aspect of the after-school activities they used to do? Are they frustrated at not being able to continue their progress in a skill they were learning in a club or after-school program? Do they need more stimulation? Consider which of these aspects of a class would be most important and use your answer to guide your assessment of particular classes and teaching formats.

2. Assess how much screen time your child will have this fall for school, and how well your child will tolerate the addition of one more screen-intensive class. If one more instance of remote learning will lead to online burnout, maybe an outdoor activity or unstructured playtime will be better for your child.

3. How does your child learn best? Some classes are highly interactive, others include a lot of hands-on learning, while others challenge students to work independently between class sessions. Look for a course that matches your child’s preferences and style so it’s an enjoyable, relaxing format for him or her.

4. When assessing a class, review the content offering, curriculum, instructional approach, and the instructor’s teaching experience. If the social aspect is important for your child, look for an online class that has small classes and plenty of time built into the schedule for the students to interact. If you’re looking for ways to fill your child’s after-school hours, some classes also include independent work where students will work on a project, build their skills, and deepen their knowledge by reviewing what they worked on in the class. Others have the students work on a team-based project between classes.

5. Will the class offer your child hands-on, participatory, active learning? Teachers all over the country have discovered that the classic lecture format is especially difficult when they’re conducting online learning. Keeping the students actively engaged is essential, yet some passive learning is inevitable. If your child is resuming school in an online format this fall, a maker-style class or a class where the students are writing code interactively or collaborating on projects may be a perfect complement to the rest of their day, balancing their more abstract in-school learning with an activity that yields a tangible or visible product.

6. Are you hoping that the class will free you up to work or do other projects without interruption? If so, assess whether your child will be able to participate without your assistance. Also, plan to spend some time setting up the computer, loading software, creating a work area, and/or unpacking supplies for your child in advance. You may also need to work with your child before the first class, so they are comfortable opening or working with the software, using Zoom or Google Meet, or switching between screens if necessary. The time you spend in advance will go far to ensuring that your child can work independently and you will have the time you need to do other things.

7. Many online program providers have discovered that they need to offer classes with smaller size and build in time for the students to interact and socialize together. Smaller classes enable the instructor to get to know each child and work with them individually. This may be an ideal situation for your child, especially if online school learning or even the on-site school day is proving to be stressful. In fact, some children who are shy in larger groups feel more comfortable in a small online group setting and participate more. Assess both your child’s personality and your fall school situation. 

8. Involve your child in the choice of class. Talk with your child about their interests and share a list of class options. They may surprise you (and even themselves) with a new interest or by their curiosity about something they haven’t explored before. Talk together about the time commitment and logistics, and how your child views success in the class.

Ready to Start Searching for Classes?

Here’s a collection of online STEM classes your kids can attend at home. They include subjects in coding, engineering, science, math, technology, and entrepreneurship and in after-school, evening, and weekend formats. These programs are offered live and are led by instructors for a fee. I would love to hear about your experience choosing a class and what factors were important to you.

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