Math and science spark creativity and are the building blocks for technological advances. Encourage your tween not to fall behind.

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Preteens are famous for being fashionistas and for shopping up a storm. Children’s buying power is calculated to be $1 trillion.

Boys and girls are not setting records, however, for their achievements in math and science. In the most recent rankings of proficiency, the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, American 15-year-olds placed 23rd in science among 65 industrialized nations and 30th in mathematics.

If the U.S. is to be competitive, much less a leader, in the global economy of the 21st century, young Americas have to be on the cutting edge in technology and creativity. Mathematics and science are the intellectual building blocks necessary. While I.Q. scores are rising compared to previous generations, creativity peaked and began turning downward around 1990.

Neil Howe, an expert on the generations, author and Lifecourse blogger, said, “On the road, when I talk to managers, one of their biggest disappointments with entry-level employees is their lack of willingness to take risks and think outside the box.”

What can we as parents do to jumpstart our kids’ interest in math and science, and help them acquire the appropriate tools to excel in these fields and generate creativity?

Break With the Past — Meager Offerings; Missing MindsetFirst and foremost, parents, educators and students need to understand why the current performance is so lackluster. In recent years, neither parents nor students seemed concerned with the quality and quantity of math and science courses taught in their own schools.

A Public Agenda report called “Reality Check 2006: Are Parents and Students Ready for More Math and Science?” found that only 32 percent of parents were concerned about the lack of math and science courses. A mere 25 percent of students expressed similar disappointment with opportunity in these subjects.

Tough academic issues unfortunately took a back seat to other issues. Parents worried about discipline, drugs, alcohol and school safety. Students felt alarmed by peers using bad language and disrespecting teachers, cheating on tests and cutting classes. Only 28 percent of students articulated that not being taught enough math and science was a problem. More than 40 percent said they’d be unhappy if they ended up in a career choice requiring large amounts of math and science. This is neither the agenda nor the mindset that is going to graduate the math and science stars America needs.

The Media Brings a New MessageWhen there’s a problem in society, the media — particularly TV and movies — compound the problem. But on this science and math dilemma, surprisingly both TV and the movies contribute to the solution. This past fall, Elmo, Zoe, Cookie Monster and the rest of Sesame Street’s cast are focused on scientific thinking, the theme for the season. Newton’s laws of motion, gravity and physics are woven into skits starring Humpty Dumpty, for example, who needs strategic protection while playing football. 

Your preteens may be too old for this new entertaining curriculum, but there are several excellent primetime and cable programs that make science geeks cool.

The No. 1 geek goddess is Abby Sciuto on “NCIS.” She’s a Goth 20-something who wears pigtails and dog-leash necklaces, and exhibits an astounding knowledge of forensics. Every episode has Abby spouting hypotheses, fingertip speed-dancing on her computers, spitting high-tech data and playing a pivotal role in solving the case. The actress behind Abby, Pauley Perrette, puts a new spin on the Dear Abby scene.

She told the “Philadelphia Daily News,” “I get letters and stuff from people all the time, all over the world — parents, grandparents, kids themselves — that say this fictional character I play influenced them, and now they’re pursuing math and science.”

The Abby effect isn’t the only example. “The Big Bang Theory” is a science-oriented comedy where a female neurobiologist just joined the other male geeks. Then there’s “Bones,” starring a brilliant scientist-novelist named Temperance Brennan. The Discovery channel’s reality show “MythBusters” is a major hit with preteen boys.

Steering your kids to one of these programs will up their familiarity with science in a way that is more kid-friendly than their school textbook. And these programs might even send them to that textbook or a website to continue a scientific inquiry.

A Few More Ideas for Your Budding Mathlete or Science GeekIntellectual critics blame the self-esteem movement — kids being praised for everything and nothing — for killing innovation and creativity. Some insist we’ve created a generation of kids who think they are all geniuses. In such a climate, no one has to try harder because everyone succeeds no matter how mediocre the performance.

Others blame technology for creating a generation of narcissists who spend too much time on smart phones and Facebook. While there will always be distractions to serious study and intellectual curricula like math and science, there are things parents can do to offset distractions:

Teach a good work ethic.
Tout patience, too. Steve Jobs, who changed the way we communicate with iPhones and iPads, became the quintessential example of focused hard work, vision and commitment to excellence. His picture could be placed next to “creativity” in the dictionary.

Give DIY science gifts for birthdays and holidays.
Things that play with light (prisms or magnifying glasses), things that move in unexpected ways (magnets or a Slinky) and models or objects of wonder (crystals and shells) steer kids toward curiosity and the wonders of our natural world and how it works.

Lobby for science fairs.Ask for one if your school doesn’t do them, and if it does, require your children to participate. The projects can be silly or serious, homemade slime or skyscrapers made of tinker toys.

Watch for community events that feature science.
For example, Vero Beach is gearing up to re-excavate the site where archeologists and paleontologists discovered fossil remains of the ice age Vero man and the mammoths and tigers that lived along with him. This is science in the making.

Science is everywhere. Mathematics, technology, engineering — these are not lifeless tombs in the technical section of the library but the architecture of our world. Preteens are naturally curious and eager to discover the larger world. They just need your steering them in the right direction.

Margaret Sagarese is the co-author of “The Roller Coaster Years.” Email her at msagarese@aol.com.

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