Many parents might have heard the phrase “You are your child’s first teacher.” But not so many may have heard “Your three-year-old is a scientist.”
Akil Rahim is hoping to change that.
“Children are naturally curious, naturally inquisitive; they are natural scientists,” says Rahim, who has four decades of experience as a teacher and a teacher of teachers. “We come into the world wanting to know why, wanting to know what something is. We have to help parents become a part of not letting that curiosity die. We have to teach them not to be afraid of their children’s questions and to build off those questions, recognizing that any moment can be a moment for learning.”
Rahim’s fellowship, The George Washington Carver DISCO STEAM InVenTures Project, has a long name but a fairly simple concept. The idea is to help low-income parents develop and nurture in their pre-school-aged children a lifelong interest in science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM). Additionally, Rahim would like to see more STEAM-related activities in elementary schools and Head Start programs throughout the city.
“There’s a national emphasis for students to pursue STEAM education,” Rahim says. “There’s a big need in the country for people with those skills. But there’s an even bigger deficit in those areas among African Americans. So the idea is to help parents return to their own lost interest in being inquisitive so they can nurture it in their children.”
For example, Rahim says, on a trip to the grocery store with a small child, a stroll down the produce aisle can be a great time to ask a question, develop a hypothesis and test it out.
“That’s the DISCO part of this: discover, investigate, simulate and create opportunities,” he says. “We teach parents how to ask the right questions, how to look at a sweet potato and say, ‘What is this? What was it before it looked like what you see now? And what will it become?’ And then take the sweet potato home and get the child involved in cooking it. That’s science.”
Rahim plans to enroll up to 10 parents from 10 different Head Start centers around the city. The parents will participate in monthly trainings on various “InVenTures”—a combination of inventions and adventures—that they can do at home with minimal or no cost.
They will learn to track the changing colors of the leaves, experiment with food coloring in water or practice rudimentary astronomy by searching for the moon in the daytime, as examples.
A larger piece of the project will involve training parents to be advocates for STEAM activities throughout their children’s school careers.
“I see this as a way to get the whole process started before the children ever get into the public school system,” Rahim says. “Then, once they get into the system, the parents will be advocates for maintaining that kind of education in schools.”
Rahim also wants to be sure that everyone involved understands that art is equally as important as science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Einstein said the most important thing about science is not knowledge but imagination,” Rahim says. “Imagination is the art of STEM. It’s the A that goes in between those letters.”