Melissa Jurist, shown here at an engineering camp for kids, designs and implements programming designed to increase the participation of K-12 students and teachers in science, technology, engineering and math.

STEM for the holidays

K-12 education expert makes recommendations for holiday gifts


4:16 p.m., Nov. 24, 2015--Melissa Jurist, academic program manager of K-12 education in the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware, gets emails from parents every year at about this time asking her about holiday gifts for their kids who love science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“I tell them to get the tools that real scientists use, guide their children with activities that bring their world and the scientific world as close as possible, and, most importantly, have a blast,” says Jurist, who launched her career on Sesame Street.

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“What makes the most sense, to me, is to provide multiple points of access to STEM — equipment, books and activities,” she adds. “I don’t differentiate gifts by gender, and I don’t think STEM materials need to be expensive.”

Jurist has compiled two “learning labs,” one for less experienced/younger children and one for more experienced/older kids. These items can be found in hardware stores, hobby shops, science stores and through online vendors. Links are provided for some of the harder-to-find items.

And before you hit the mall on Black Friday, your local shops on Small Business Saturday or the Internet on Cyber Monday, Jurist has one more message: Set your child up right with safety goggles, nitrile gloves and other relevant safety gear for all activities.

Creating a Lab for Younger STEM-mers (ages 4–6)

• Exploring life sciences — stethoscope (about $7). Fido, get ready to have your heart rate checked.

• Exploring life sciences — owl pellets (about $4 for two). Nothing gets kids more interested in STEM than the disgusting. You can go to a raptor rescue or local zoo to give context to the pellets and lives of owls. 

• Exploring “making” — hammer ($15-40). Build with scrap wood, sticks and a hammer and nails/fasteners (and safety goggles). In a few years, maybe they’ll build you an addition.

• Exploring physical science — magnets (about $9). Test various household objects to see what’s attractive. 

• Exploring physics — prisms (about $10). Who knew that light has so many colors? 

• Exploring electrical engineering -- a broken appliance (free or very cheap). Take apart an old phone to see how it works.

• Get your math on — Fractiles for your fridge (about $12). Fractals exist in nature, art and math. (Yes, they all overlap). Click here for some fractal activities. 

Creating a Lab for Older STEM-mers (ages 7–12) 

• Exploring life sciences — chicken leg (about $3) and scalpel (about $5). Yes, scalpels are sharp, and that’s why you'll be supervising and guiding. Science isn’t just for the classroom or the lab — you can do it in your kitchen. Click here for some help with the dissection process.

• Explore chemical engineering — litmus paper (about $3).  You’ll know this is a fun gift when your child dips it into almost everything to figure out what’s an acid and what’s a base. (Try shampoos, vinegar, milk, etc.)

•Exploring “making” — balsa ($2-20). Challenge yourselves to build the tallest structure that will hold 5 pounds with balsa, glue guns and/or straight pins, then add weight until the structure breaks.  Nothing is more fun than destruction.  

• Exploring the physical world — gyroscope (about $8). Sure, it seems like a toy, but it’s also the foundation for lots of navigational components. 

• Exploring math — pantograph (about $30).  Guess what? Math isn’t just arithmetic — it’s ratios, patterns, scale… so use this to make tiny drawings big or big drawings tiny.

• Exploring technology — Arduino and Raspberry Pi (about $50). “Makers” and “tinkerers” alike love these, and there is a huge online community to help you do almost anything with them, including creating a holiday light show or building a robot.

• Exploring technology — learn programming (free). Point your kid to to learn a programming language through online tutorials. 

After the Holidays

Jurist is confident that these gifts will hold kids’ interest long after the holiday break is over and everyone is back in school. But she emphasizes that it’s important for parents to jump in on these activities and learn along with their kids.

And she echoes Babatunde Ogunnaike, dean of engineering at UD, who says, “Let’s fail faster.”

“We need to teach our kids that it’s okay for something to collapse, not work or otherwise fail,” Jurist says. “It enables us to stop, evaluate what happened and figure out why. This is the scientific process in its truest form. Let’s deal with failure by learning from it. If your balsa bridge collapses, then it’s time to review, redesign and retest. It’s what real STEM-mers do all the time."

About Melissa Jurist

Melissa Jurist, who launched her career on Sesame Street, is director of K-12 education in the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware. She works closely with faculty to bring their research concepts into K-12 activities that are grounded in current educational theory as well as engaging and enjoyable for the K-12 community. She also designs and implements programming for various K-12 outreach programs, including summer camps and high school internships, with the goal of increasing the participation of K-12 students and teachers in STEM.

Jurist, who has a bachelor’s degree from New York University in psychology with a focus on math and science cognition, started her career researching and developing curriculum for Sesame Workshop, creators of the PBS television show Sesame Street. She then worked with academic research teams at California Institute of Technology on a National Science Foundation evaluation of how children learn through hands-on science.

Jurist can be reached at 267-275-2656 or

Article by Diane Kukich

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