Incorporating STEM Education in the Preschool Classroom

A recent survey, conducted in 2010 by Change the Equation (a nonprofit, nonpartisan corporate initiative to further math and science learning), revealed that nearly one-third of Americans would rather clean their bathrooms than do a math problem. These findings become extremely troubling as we consider the fact that we currently live in a global society where more and more employers are seeking employees who have knowledge and skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. The only way that we can ensure that students leave their K-12 education experiences with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions needed to work in these fields is to start early with young children. Thus, I argue that STEM education should be incorporated in the preschool classroom.

What is STEM education? STEM is a label that is given to describe educational content and processes in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM education involves problem-based and project-based learning that allows learners to explore real-world problems, simultaneously developing cross-curriculum skills while working in small, collaborative groups. Essentially, there are two different approaches to STEM education. The discipline-specific approach emphasizes teaching students content and processes embedded in each of these four disciplines separately. In other words, a teacher who is applying this approach may teach science concepts and processes and then move on to technology concepts and processes and then on to engineering concepts and processes. There is little or no overlap between these four disciplines within this particular approach.

The second approach to STEM education focuses more on integrating concepts and processes embedded within the four disciplines while teaching. For example, while a teacher is teaching science concepts and processes, he or she may also discuss concepts and process associated with mathematics and or technology. Furthermore, this secondary approach to STEM education also integrates STEM concepts and process into the other subject areas as well.

Why is it important to incorporate STEM education into the preschool classroom?

One reason STEM education should be incorporated into the preschool classroom is that children at this age are well-suited for this form of learning. A recent study conducted by the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) revealed that 4-year-olds have the cognitive ability to learn about the concept of weight by watching adults sort toys. Moreover, many have already begun grappling with STEM concepts (i.e., observation, data collection, analyzing, predicting) by the time they enter kindergarten. Hence, we should begin to refine and strengthen these concepts and processes during the preschool education years.

What should I keep in mind as I engage in STEM education in an early childhood classroom?

  • Allow children’s natural curiosities to drive the content. As we already know, children are naturally curious beings. The best place to start incorporating STEM concepts in the early childhood classroom is by building on the questions or inquires that naturally emerge in the classroom.
  • Encourage an inquiry -based approach. STEM education works best in environments where students are encouraged to pose critical questions and apply scientific and mathematical processes to find answers to these questions.
  • Integrate the “arts” wherever feasible. STEM education works well in contexts where students are granted to freedom to incorporate music, drama, and or some form of visual art into the process. Hence, teachers can make STEM education in their classrooms more engaging and meaningful to students by integrating one or more of the “arts.”
  • Collaborate with parents and other community members. The disciplines and processes involved in STEM education require collaboration between many different groups of people. As such, early childhood educators should seek to involve parents and other community member in the implementation processes as often as possible.

Photo on 2015-11-11 at 10.55 This post is brought to you by Dr. Terry Husband. Dr. Husband is an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education at Illinois State University.  He teaches courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels related to literacy instruction, assessment, and issues of diversity in schools. Check out his past posts on the ECE Teacher Talk blog here, here, and here!

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