STEM Under the Tree
article & photo by stephanie hobby
Gift giving season is upon us, and if you’re like many parents and grandparents, you’ll want to stash something educational under the tree. Fortunately, there are plenty of options to fit any budget when it comes to STEM-related gifts.
Experience gifts have grown in popularity, and memberships are wonderful for families. Consider places like the Montana Audubon Center, Wise Wonders Science & Discovery Museum, or ZooMontana. If you’re willing to take a short day-trip, tickets to the Museum of the Rockies or Montana Science Center, both in Bozeman, or the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary in Red Lodge, would all make lasting memories. Keep an eye on the Montana Learning Center Facebook page (based outside of Helena at Canyon Ferry Lake), the MLC offers summer stargazing parties with the state’s largest publicly accessible observatory.
Summer camps are always a hit; peruse former camp listings in past issues of Simply Local Magazine, which have been published in April (look for it in the March 2023 issue this year!) to get an idea of what’s available in this area. Many don’t open registration until spring, but you can get a jump start with a card to let your loved one know you’ll be sending them to a camp. Rocky Mountain College, the YMCA, Camp Invention®, Montana Learning Center, Code Girls United, Montana Audubon Center, Wise Wonders, and ZooMontana have all offered summer STEM camps in the past, and their websites would be terrific resources for planning for this coming summer.
More tangible gifts offer hours of entertainment and family bonding experiences, too. Telescopes, microscopes, or a good pair of binoculars all help spark an interest in the natural world. Fortunately, there are a lot of great starter products that come at lower prices, but shop around to get a feel for what the price range should be and take time to read some reviews. You get what you pay for; most amateur astronomers would tell you to steer clear of warehouse stores when telescope shopping and look for specialty online stores and reputable brand names.
Astronomer Ryan Hannahoe, executive director of the Montana Learning Center, recommends Celestron’s Starsense Explorer 8-inch Smartphone App-enabled Dobsonian Telescope. Listed at $799.99, it’s pricey but is exceptionally user-friendly while providing a great view. The scope connects with a smartphone app to take even the most inexperienced users on an in-depth, guided night sky tour. The 8-inch parabolic mirror greatly enhances light captured from even the faintest of objects so that you can clearly see faraway galaxies and nebulae.
If that’s not in the budget, you can still find a terrific scope on sites such as TelescopesPlus.com or celestron.com. Many offer sales, too, so look on social media or call the company and ask. There is a wealth of knowledge online from amateur astronomer groups, so scour those pages for more information; most people are enthusiastic about helping newcomers. Every telescope has a learning curve, some steeper than others, so read reviews and look for tutorials on YouTube before purchasing to decide if it’s the right scope for you.
If you have a budding geologist in your family, consider a magnifying glass and a rock identification guide combined with a special outing to look for rocks along the Yellowstone River or nearby parks.
Robotics is another option for tech toys; LEGO offers many programmable robots for a variety of tasks. Billings is fortunate to have several LEGO Robotics teams; if your child doesn’t have a team at school, Wise Wonders hosts teams for all ages. Contact the museum for more information; most teams start in the fall and are well underway, but you can order kits directly from LEGO suppliers.
Speaking of LEGOs, studies have shown that some of the best educational toys you can buy are simple building blocks. Blocks and other building toys encourage creativity and problem-solving while introducing basic engineering concepts. LEGO are a natural way to extend that skill set as children grow. And while it’s always gratifying to purchase a full kit and see the project through to completion, there’s a lot to be said for sitting on the floor and letting imaginations take charge. Retailers like Billings-based DuckDuckBricks (duckduckbrick.brickowl.com) and Bricks and Minifigs offer various individual parts to supplement your collection.
Home Science Tools, also based in Billings, offers everything you need to start a young scientist with kits for a broad range of disciplines, including chemistry, physics, physiology, and earth and space sciences. You can search for gifts by age to help narrow down your choices.
Finally, one of our family’s favorite STEM toys is the Turing Tumble, an addicting game that uses marbles and mechanical switches to demonstrate how computers work. Kids can use their senses to understand the coding strategy and learn concepts like binary, binary operations, and logic gates. This low-tech but brilliantly designed game provides hours of fun, and there’s no screen involved!
The best part? STEM gifts often involve the whole family, so go explore the night sky together, collect leaves and rocks to examine under a microscope, or build a LEGO city. You’re helping develop their curiosity while giving them the priceless gift of your time.
Backyard Exploration Series: Hit the Dino Trail
Rain, snow or sun, there are dinos all over Montana waiting to be discovered! Check out the Montana Dino Trail to learn more about dinosaurs found throughout the state in charming small towns and awesome museums! And, the lessons can start at home if you don’t want to hit the road.