When you think of STEM, I’m sure you automatically picture the overarching subjects that make up the acronym: science, technology, engineering, and math. Yet the STEM landscape is astonishingly far-reaching, encompassing all aspects of life.
For instance, remember your last school field trip to a dolphin or turtle preserve? It had a STEM element. So did your lunch period yesterday when the food service assistant showed your students that one apple plus one banana equaled two pieces of fruit. And the four square game you helped your kids set up at recess? That had the hallmarks of STEM, too.
STEM subjects are embedded throughout our days, from the time we get up in the morning until the time we go to sleep at night. As such, it’s perfectly reasonable — and necessary — to integrate STEM topics into your formal lessons and conversations with students, no matter their age. However, STEM sometimes gets pushed to the side for young learners to make room for literacy development and rote learning.
The Importance of STEM Education in Early Childhood
Although STEM has become the purview of the middle school and high school levels, it’s just as suitable for toddler, preschooler, and early elementary groups. During those ages, kids are ridiculously and intensely curious. They want to know the “Why?” behind everything they do and see, and their inquisitiveness opens them to STEM education. And remember, STEM isn’t just for kids who are budding scientists or mathematical whizzes. It’s for any child. STEM reinforces skill sets beyond the obvious, such as literacy, collaboration, creativity, and motor skills.
Before age five, children are developing hundreds of neural connections every second; their neurological and mental development is off the charts in terms of speed and growth. Spend five minutes with a talkative preschooler and you’ll see a love of active exploration and even critical thinking and scientific inquiry in action.
Research shows that young people’s brains are receptive to logic and math. In addition, when young children enter school, they already can comprehend the natural world, think abstractly and concretely, and leverage scientific reasoning. Building upon these abilities creates a stronger foundation for students that will be critical for their future success — especially when you consider that only 20% of high school graduates are academically prepared for college coursework in STEM degree programs.
What’s more, only 36% of fourth graders were proficient in science and just 41% were proficient in math, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress report. When STEM becomes a normal, natural part of daily classroom discussions for young students, it feels more intuitive and less like a “school subject,” which might turn off some learners and lead to a better understanding of STEM topics in the long run.
Teaching STEM early also sets your students up for more career opportunities and greater economic success in the future. By 2030, STEM jobs are predicted to increase by 10.5% whereas non-STEM jobs are predicted to grow by only 7.5%. What’s more, in 2020, jobs in STEM fields paid a median of $89,780 — and it’s safe to expect that number will grow in the future.
There’s no question that starting early STEM education is imperative, but how can educators incorporate it naturally into both their everyday discussions with students and their formal curriculums?
STEM Learning in Action
STEM experiments don’t have to be complex to be effective and entertaining. Look through some lists of safe science experiments for kids and find ones that are simple and fun, such as creating a rain cloud in a Mason jar. Or, let’s say you want to introduce some engineering principles to your students in the most basic form: building blocks.
You can also ask them to create a structure, but not just any old building. Challenge them to construct a house for their pet. This opens discussions on everything from the layout of the house to the interior design elements, such as furnishings and colors, and the elements your students’ pets will need and want in a home. By the time the projects are completed, your students haven’t just dabbled in engineering and spatial skills. The experience has allowed them to focus on creativity and empathy, as well. In essence, you’ve promoted cross-curricular instruction designed to springboard from STEM into other learning activities.
Want another example of cross-curricular STEM projects? Think about all the songs you know that have a counting component. Sure, your students are dancing and responding to the rhythm of the music. Why not combine math skills such as counting, adding, and subtracting with the music? That way, it feels fun rather than formulaic.
There are so many opportunities to incorporate STEM into everyday classroom life. For instance, if ice cream is on the menu at lunchtime, then you could ask students what would happen if they ate the ice cream really slowly. Why would it melt? Your questions could turn into a trip to the library to find a book about liquids and solids. During playtime, ask students to engage in STEM tasks. You might say, “Can you make a bridge with those sticks? We can see if it will hold up!” To them, you’re just making playtime more enjoyable and engaging. However, you’re really helping them practice a multitude of physical and mental skills — skills that parents are putting more importance on in light of the pandemic.
Ultimately, STEM learning should be fun for youngsters. That way, they can open their minds to making discoveries. Along the way, they also practice everything from working in teams and asking tough questions to investigating new concepts and exploring during playtime.
As an educator, you know it’s important to foster a love of learning in every child. But don’t forget to focus on STEM when you’re finding ways to build that love in your young students and enhance their development.
Rhona Dick is lead curriculum designer at Lingokids, a language-learning service for children ages 2-8. Launched in 2016, Lingokids delivers millions of lessons every month to happy kids all over the world. Backed by investors such as Bessemer Venture Partners and HV Capital, Lingokids has won several awards for its curriculum, including a gold medal from Mom’s Choice Awards and Best Android App of the Year from Google.