STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has always been a fundamental part of early childhood education. It has also been known under different labels, such as inquiry-based, project-based, or hands-on learning. Regardless of the name, these teaching practices recognize that students’ interests and passions, as well as those of the educator, are vital elements of the learning experience. Children learn concepts from different disciplines and in different contexts, in ways that are naturally engaging to them.
Through STEM education, children are immersed in activities in which they can investigate an idea in a variety of settings and using different approaches, tools, and materials. This type of engagement with concrete experiences is critical for helping to form and solidify their understanding of the world around them—and for developing inquisitiveness, persistence, and independence.
Why a STEM approach works
Children are curious about the world around them and often can be found eagerly collecting sticks and stones while on the playground and then using these natural materials to build, count, create, and follow their own unique blueprints. In other words, they are exercising basic engineering skills! This reflects a central principle of STEM education—sparking the imagination and helping students innovate through hands-on projects. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about applying creative thinking and design skills to projects so that students can carry this way of approaching work and challenges into adulthood (Feldman, 2015).
The time children spend reflecting and trying new ways to activate certain materials or uncover new possibilities makes learning about the world around them exciting and meaningful. Research has shown that early exposure to STEM initiatives and activities positively impacts elementary students' perceptions and dispositions (Bagiati, Yoon, Evangelou, & Ngambeki, 2010; Bybee, & Fuchs, 2006).
Preparing for the future
Lifelong scientific literacy begins with attitudes and values established in the earliest years (National Research Council 1996, p.114). The main benefit young students gain from a STEM approach is the ability to think creatively and remain engaged in their learning. Encouraging students to pursue a STEM career has become an important US educational policy that emphasizes teaching these 21st-century skills along with STEM knowledge in the context of future economic growth (Liao, Motter & Patton, 2016).
Early exposure to STEM—whether it be in school, at a museum, a library, or just through engaging in the natural trial and error of play—also supports children’s overall academic growth, develops early critical thinking and reasoning skills, and enhances later interest in STEM study and careers (Stewart, 2016).
Supporting curiosity and inviting inquiry
The most important thing to remember about teaching STEM to early learners is that they are already perfectly positioned to learn STEM concepts. The secret lies in the ability of the adult to tap into their natural curiosity about the living world. Children thrive when we let them investigate and encourage them to ask more questions about the world that surrounds them. This simple shift in how we allow the students to participate in the learning prepares the ground for a fertile STEM experience.
Adults should support activities that include collecting, classifying, and labeling materials and introduce more advanced activities that require classification and nomenclature (for example, animals, rocks, plants, etc.). Educators should ask questions, stimulate investigations, and guide students to identify objects, formulate comparisons, make predictions and hypotheses, test ideas, experiment, and even share discoveries. In order to foster mathematical skills in students, the exploration of sizes, shapes, patterns, and quantities should be an organic, creative process with hands-on experience.
Focus on process over absolute goals
It is important to depart from a curriculum and instruction delivery that is too compartmentalized and relies mainly on direct instruction. A curriculum or teaching method centered primarily on academic goals overlooks the centrality of understanding as an educational goal (Katz, 2010). This approach reduces students’ opportunities for developing thinking and collaboration skills that enable them to have a flexible and dynamic response to understanding the rapidly evolving landscape of today’s generation.
Teachers who understand the value of an integrated curriculum by using a STEM approach create transformational experiences for their students. The students feel empowered and are encouraged to discover their abilities and passions, as well as build their own pathways. As I continue to engage in the Wonder Lab at Lowell, I often see how students develop critical skills that help solidify their knowledge in all content areas—subsequently, they feel prepared for success in the next stage of their education and life. Children wonder about the forces that keep a block from falling at the top of a building structure they just built, and they continue to wonder and ponder as the world around them offers endless opportunities for discovery.
It would be a great victory if all schools transition to a STEM approach in an integrated curriculum that allows children to be active participants in their learning. In addition, STEM education is evolving further to include the arts (STEAM). This allows for additional cross-curricular opportunities, such as combining literature with math or science, and helps develop other pathways to understanding inter-related concepts. Overall, education that approaches learning from a multifaceted perspective prepares students to be curious, engaged learners and broad-minded citizens for life.
Resources and additional articles
- Bagiati, A., Yoon Y.S., Evangelou, D., Magana, A., Kaloustian, G., & Zhu, J. (2015).
- The landscape of PreK-12 engineering online resources for teachers: global trends. International Journal of STEM Education, DOI 10.1186/s40594-014-0015-3
- DeJarnette, K. N. (2012). America’s children: providing earl exposure to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives. Teacher Education-Rowan University.
- Jolly, A., (2014) Six Characteristics of a Great STEM Lesson- Education Week http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/06/17/ctq_jolly_stem.html
- Feldman A.,(2015). STEAM Rising. Why we need to put the arts into STEM education. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/06/steam_vs_stem_w hy_we_need_to_put_the_arts_into_stem_education.html
- Katz L. G. (2010). STEM in the early years. SEED Papers- ECRP-http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/beyond/seed/katz.html
- Liao, C., Motter, J. L, Patton, R. M. (2016) Tech-Savvy Girls: Learning 21st-Century Skills Through STEAM Digital Art making- National Art Education Association Volume 69-Issue 4 http://search.proquest.com/docview/1807038568?accountid=43872
- Manner, B., (2001) -Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences in Students- National Science Teacher Association http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=40969
- Moomaw, S., (2013) Teaching STEM in the Early Years: Activities for Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Redleaf Press.
- Sneideman, J., M.,( 2013). Engaging Children in STEM Education EARLY! http://naturalstart.org/feature-stories/engaging-children-stem-education-early
- Stewart, D., J., (2012). What does STEM look like in preschool and what is STEM anyway?http://www.teachpreschool.org/2012/06/stem/