“Early STEM skills lay the foundation for later success in school…to support children’s learning, we have to make sure that STEM starts early.”
-National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
When it comes to education these days, there’s a lot of talk about STEM. From school programs to camp activities, TV shows, toys and books, STEM is everywhere. What’s the deal?
STEM is an educational approach which combines learning across the key areas of science, technology, engineering and math with practical applications. Evidence has shown that early immersion in STEM sets children up for social, academic and career success. For young children, STEM can be a fun way to encourage curiosity, creativity, motor skills, and problem-solving skills. For school-age children, STEM helps them see how the math and science they learn in school is applicable to real-life problems and essential to technologies they use every day.
“Young children are naturally curious. They wonder what things are called, how they work, and why things happen. The foundations of science learning lie in inquiry and exploration—these are the tools of active learning. Fostering young children’s sense of curiosity about the natural world around them can promote a lifelong interest in it.”
– Boston Children’s Museum STEM Sprouts (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math teaching guide)
Did I mention that STEM is fun? Kids naturally love to learn how things work, and they ask cool questions about things that adults take for granted. They love putting stuff together, or even better, taking stuff apart. They love to tinker. If you think about it, isn’t tinkering a great way to play and to learn?
“Kids are natural tinkerers. They experiment, explore, test, and play…When children are encouraged to solve problems on their own, they learn a great deal through the questions and hands-on experiments that lead to a solution.”
-Rachelle Doorley, Tinkerlab: A hands-on guide for little inventors
|STEM*||Definition||Activities for preschoolers include|
|Science||A way of thinking. Observing, asking questions, wondering how things work, and making predictions; experimenting and testing, sharing discoveries, adding to knowledge base.||Exploring water, rocks, sand and soil, playing with balls, investigating weather, plants, animals and bugs,|
|Technology||A way of doing using tools, being inventive, identifying problems, and making things work.||Computers, simple machines like gears and wheels and pulleys, taking apart a watch to see how it works|
|Engineering||A way of doing by designing and creating, solving problems, and building things that work.||Planning, designing and building with blocks, Legos, sand, Magna-Tiles, cardboard houses or mazes, tracks, marble runs|
|Math||A way of measuring, including sequencing (1,2,3,4…), patterning (1,2,1,2,1…), and exploring shapes, volume and size.||Counting, matching shapes, making patterns, measuring or comparing sizes|
*adapted from Boston Children’s Museum STEM teaching guide
Learning how to learn
Curiosity—Asking questions—Exploring solutions—Learning!
Part of the learning process for any child involves problem-solving. The fact is that some ideas and solutions just don’t work. Learning to embrace failure as part of the process is a critical skill that a child needs to have for school, and frankly, for life. The experience of problem-solving, or Process, is more important than the result, or Product.
A process-based curriculum leads to self-directed, open-ended learning. Over time, exposure to a material, tool or experience helps a child develop skills, which builds competency and leads to confidence. Kids learn that repetition is good, that slow is good, that “boring” can be good. Gratification, even when (especially when!) delayed, lasts.
Much of the STEM process involves working with others to answer questions, learning to contribute to a group, learning that a problem may have more than one solution. All of these are all invaluable skills for a lifetime of learning.
Improving the balance
“Our society has a lot of common misperceptions about STEM. We often see it as hard, solitary, and more ‘for boys’ than ‘for girls.’ Children pick up on these beliefs at an early age, often based on subtle cues from the adults around them. By elementary school, girls are less interested in STEM than boys.”
-Dr. Allison Master, University of Washington
Positive STEM experiences in school can give children an idea of the options available to them in life. This is particularly critical for girls and minorities who are underrepresented in the fields of science and technology. Making early improvements such as immersing preschoolers in STEM education is one important step in the right direction. Children who develop scientific and technological literacy become adults who can make informed decisions on critical issues like energy, healthcare, and the environment. In other words, STEM education is essential for no less than shaping tomorrow’s workforce and informing its citizens. The good news is that equipping our children well for the future, in the STEM sense, means fun activities, explorations and tinkering for now.
Berger, C. (2017, Feb 23). Creating an engineering design process for the preschool classroom. Retrieved from http://blog.eie.org/creating-an-engineering-design-process-for-the-preschool-classroom
Boston Children’s Museum STEM sprouts (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math teaching guide) (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/STEMGuide.pdf
Doorley, Rachelle. Tinkerlab: A hands-on guide for little inventors. 2014: Roost Books.
Master, A. (2017, March 31). Make STEM social to motivate preschoolers. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/blog/make-stem-social
Ruzzi, B.L., and Eckhoff, A (2017 March). STEM resources and materials for engaging learning experiences. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/mar2017/stem-materials-experiences
Why engineering for children? (n.d.) Retrieved from https://eie.org/overview/engineering-children
More resources and activity ideas for parents