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How not to let your kid's brain turn to mush over the summer break

By Vince M. Bertram
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Vince Bertram worries that if students don't stay engaged in the summer, they'll fall behind
  • Students lose an equivalent of two months of math skills over the summer, says a study
  • Science, math can be used in fun projects that make concepts relevant in real world
  • Summer learning does not have to mean spending all day inside a classroom or library

Editor's note: Vince Bertram is the president and CEO of Project Lead The Way, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to STEM curriculum and teacher training. You can follow him on Twitter @vincebertram. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Summer break is here for many students and their teachers across the country. Kids are off to camps, vacations with the grandparents or just time lounging around the house.

But when there is so much focus on American students' global education competitiveness, students and teachers at all grade levels should find opportunities to keep their minds active and continue learning while enjoying all that summer has to offer.

Vince M. Bertram
Vince M. Bertram

Summer learning loss is real. It's also counterproductive. When students return in the fall, teachers must spend considerable time reviewing before they introduce new material and help students develop new and advanced skills.

The National Summer Learning Association reports that students lose an equivalent of two months of their grade-level math computational skills over the summer, and students from low-income families also lose the same equivalency in reading achievement. While summer is a time to relax, it is not a time to stop learning.

The key to education -- especially in critical science, technology, engineering and math fields -- is activity-based learning that makes concepts relevant in real-world, meaningful ways.

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For example, velocity, speed, lift and drag -- concepts often taught in a high school physics class -- are applied, using Project Lead The Way classroom curriculum, when building an airfoil that must meet certain constraints.

In third grade, students learn about forces, axles and levers, and apply these concepts to design a simple machine to rescue an animal that has fallen into a trench.

Lessons like these show students the relevancy of their learning and engage and inspire them to continue learning. But learning like this doesn't have to be confined to a classroom.

While traditional summer school is beneficial for some students, summer learning does not have to mean spending all day inside a classroom or library.

Summer activities are filled with real-world learning experiences that parents can help convey: A swimming pool can teach students about buoyancy. The ocean waves can be a lesson in gravitational forces. A baseball game can teach about velocity and drag. Parents and children who enjoy baking together can turn the measurements into a math lesson on fractions.

There are websites and apps, sites like Khan Academy and PBS Kids' Design Squad, that provide engaging lessons and activities for kids. Many tools can be accessed at a community library if a computer isn't available in the home.

Parents can also take time to encourage their children to read, helping build not only reading comprehension and vocabulary skills, but also knowledge on topics that students find interesting.

Summer camps are another great way to continue student learning. Organizations like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and local zoos and museums offer exciting and engaging opportunities for students.

Then there are Gateway Academy camps across the country, where nearly 5,000 middle school students will spend a week immersed in hands-on activities around topics like programming, alternative energy, flight and space, fluid power and the engineering design process.

Summer is also a terrific time for teachers to improve their craft by engaging in professional development -- not the kind of professional development that teaches the latest fads in education, but rather the kind that focuses on how teachers can engage students in relevant learning.

Continuous teacher training and learning are vital to student success. A number of universities offer formal summer courses. And while Massive Open Online Courses have their supporters and opponents, a MOOC could be a great option for continuous teacher learning over the summer months.

Learning does not have to cease for the summer when the last class bell rings. Students, teachers and parents can have an enjoyable and relaxing summer while continuing the education process.

The responsibility to continue learning this summer rests with each one of us. When it comes to summer learning loss, we can change course. We can continuously improve, learn and engage, and have a great summer in the process.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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