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I am asking for advice on this topic on behalf of economically disadvantages families/students I do outreach with in the USA.

I wish to enrol my middle school/high school student in summer programs that will give them further exposure the STEM fields (or another area of their interest), but all of these programs exceed the level of financial support that I can provide as a parent; some of these programs offer financial assistance, but this is not always the case. Similarly, my child is interested in purchasing a LEGO Mindstorm/Raspberry Pi/Arduino/etc., but I do not have the funds to provide him/her with these set/supplies, nor do I have the technical know-how to help them explore such avenues of learning. How can I help my child pursue these opportunities/interests with only limited funds?

  • It might be pertinent to the answer to know which country you live in. I am familiar with some of the programs in the US only. – anongoodnurse Apr 19 '15 at 19:13
  • Edited to add info; I am in the USA. – Loonuh Apr 19 '15 at 21:47
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My parents supported my interests with very limited funds. Yes, some items can be very expensive. However, there are also inexpensive items that you can get a lot of use out of. Also, there is something to be said for the challenge of using limited resources, even if you can afford better. I still take this approach with supplies with my own children. Some specific ideas:

  • Search around for low-cost versions of your products. For example, I just bought a couple Arduino-compatibles from ICStation for $3.99 each. SparkFun has microcontrollers with built-in wifi for $6.95. These are somewhat more difficult to use than the more expensive counterparts, but are still very flexible products you can get a lot of use out of.
  • Put out a request on facebook looking for used equipment for your children's education. People who can afford it upgrade their equipment, then don't know what to do with the old stuff. Sometimes people buy kits as toys for their children who turn out not to be interested. Sometimes it's broken, but you can combine parts from various sources. I got two free computers this way, so my kids could each have their own.
  • Look for used equipment on eBay and craigslist.
  • Go to auctions held by the police or school districts. They often have surplus equipment that's still perfectly good for hobby use.
  • Go to the library. They have computers available for use, and tons of books. They often have free classes as well.
  • Salvage parts from broken or outdated equipment. Printers, for example, usually have high-quality motors that can be used in robots.
  • Search pinterest for science for kids. They have a ton of ideas to do with materials you already have lying around.
  • Find a mentor. We have well-stocked junk drawers and the knowledge to help you do more with less.
  • Be creative. A project blog online might call for a $30 circuit board and a $20 3D-printed part, but you can often make do with a $5 perf-board and $2 worth of polymer clay. In fact, I usually find that more satisfying.
  • +1, the more expensive items often suppress creativity instead of stimulating it. Also, even the cheapest computer or smart device now has many times the power of the best computers 30 years ago --there are lots of free programming apps and websites to help kids get started. If that is still out of reach, a few wires and batteries are all you need to do some simple electricity experiments. – Chris Sunami Apr 21 '15 at 14:45
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    +1 for eBay/craigs list. We got a LOT of Lego from craigslist! – Ida Apr 21 '15 at 21:35
  • +1 There's very cheap development boards these days, programming languages and Environments are free (Express editions), I bought this: museumofplay.org/online-collections/images/Z003/Z00360/… at a yard sale for 2 dollars, great great thing for a young mind. – Gorchestopher H Apr 22 '15 at 11:45
  • +1 for "science for kids" link; holy moly that is some impressive kitchen/backyard science. – Loonuh May 2 '15 at 2:28
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I would suggest that you reach out to some STEM teachers in your area. They may know of some opportunities in your area.

If there isn't anything, then you could start an after-school club, or summer program. You can recruit volunteers who can provide the technical guidance, and do some fundraising. In other words, you would be in sort of a manager role.

To find volunteers, one possibility would be to contact a teacher preparation program, if there is one in your area.

You might also find some free online classes that are a good match with your child's interests.

Good luck!

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A couple of resources I haven't seen anyone mention:

  • If you live near a university/college you can check out their chapter of ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and see if they have any high school outreach activities going on. Even if they don't they may allow a mature middle/high school student to join their general meetings.
  • Civil Air Patrol - This is the civilian auxiliary to the US Air Force, whose mission encompasses cadet development, search and rescue, and aviation education. There is a possibility for scholarship assistance toward a private pilots licence and you do have the possibility to gain flight hours, under the guidance of train pilots of course, as a cadet.
  • Venture Scouts - Your area may have a Venture scout troop. This isn't just for boys but girls too. They have a variety of programs and some specific activities for STEM. I never did this myself as I was CAP, but the kids in my HS seemed to like it. They offer career exploration as well from what I understand.
  • Look at the engineering and science departments of your local universities for youth activities. Here in Boulder, CO the CU physics department puts on free monthly seminars for elementary - adult on varying topics and many are hands on.
  • Local library may have many programs to look at as well. My local library has both Lego and science clubs for kids so your local library may as well.
  • Get with your schools science department and see if someone is willing to hold a Lego club. Lego has a list of grant sources that can help classrooms/schools gain technology such as the mindstorm sets and computers
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Two routes I would take.

First, encourage your child to earn his/her own money to buy these kits. There are lots of ways to do that as a child, mowing lawns, babysitting, doing odd jobs, gardening, etc. Then you combine two lessons in one. Offer to match his/her earnings, if you can do that, or some other incentive from your end.

Second, if you have a computer then one great opportunity is learning to program, modding games, etc. Minecraft, for example, is a very interesting game to learn to mod, both because the game itself can teach some basics such as electronic circuits, and modding has a fairly good ladder of difficulty - there are very easy mods and progressively more difficult mods. Building a website, programming a simple game, there are dozens of ways to learn to code - and many of them help develop parts of the brain and ways of thinking that are helpful for any STEM field.

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When I was a kid my Father told me that he would help me buy anything I wanted as long as I saved up half of the funds first. I think this really alleviated a lot of the burden of guilt for him not buying me things I was interested in. For one, it put everything I wanted or thought I wanted into a que of, "How much am I actually interested in this?" If I wasn't willing to save up only half the amount, then obviously I wasn't super interested in it. It put a lot of accountability on me too, I knew I could have anything I wanted if I was willing to work for it, so I acknowledged that if I wasn't willing to work, then I was the only one I could blame for not having stuff. In many cases my Dad would even offer me jobs around the house that he'd be willing to pay me for to help me get the first half of the funds.

I can't quite remember, but I think there may have been the stipulation that the item had to cost more than $100 before he'd give me the 50% off deal. Either way, you can really gauge your child's genuine interest in something based off of their willingness to work towards earning the things that they want. If they earn it through labour, they'll appreciate it a lot more, and treat it a lot better too. But the big thing is filtering out all the, "I wants because my eyes are big, but I'll probably lose interest in it after I get it" from the, "I wants it enough to work for it, I'll really appreciate it, and won't lose interest in it."

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It is certainly true that there are educational opportunities that are expensive: special programs, summer camps, supplies and equipment that you could buy, etc.

But there's a lot of educational opportunity that costs very little. One of the best ways to learn anything remains, "read a book". Books are not all that expensive, and you can get many for free from a library.

Yes, it is often good if reading can be supplemented by doing. But many science experiments, for example, can be done using reasonably common household items. Yes, if the child's interest is nuclear physics, you probably can't afford to buy him a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. But there are lots of physics experiments you can do with balls and string and springs and so on.

I home-schooled my kids off and on and we got textbooks geared to homeschoolers that often included discussions of science experiments that could be done using fairly cheap materials. I suggest you look into books or web sites that discuss "experiments you can do at home". You might look into resources for homeschoolers, but the issue is certainly not limited to homeschoolers.

Aparente001 mentioned holding fund-raisers. You may be able to get the kids to sell candy bars or magazine subscriptions or whatever to raise money for supplies and equipment.

You could try asking for donations of old equipment from area businesses likely to have the sort of equipment you need. To give them a tax write-off you'd have to create a charitable organization (or join yourself to an existing one). It's a little work but, etc.

You spoke of "families", plural. If there's a group, perhaps they can share expenses. Like if one family can't afford to buy that $500 robot kit, maybe 10 families could each manage to put up $50 and then share it. You'd have to work out an arrangement that's fair to everyone, but it's likely that a lot of the equipment you would want is not the sort of thing that the child will use every waking moment for years. Often we need equipment for one lesson that lasts perhaps a few weeks, and then it sits on a shelf for years.

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