If you are working toward an online bachelor’s or master’s degree in education, you may have read about STEM education. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In 2007, a group of researchers and leaders at the Carnegie Foundation concluded that in order for our nation to thrive in the global workforce, students need a strong foundation in math and science. They also concluded that students’ understanding of STEM is crucial to ensuring that future U.S. workers contribute to a healthy, vibrant economy.
When to Start?
A question that teachers and parents often ask is how soon should children begin learning STEM, and how should we begin teaching these concepts to young learners?
The fact is, it is never too early to start. Preschool-age children can develop basic science skills by investigating the natural world around them and by observing nature firsthand. Using sight, touch, hearing and smell, children learn to identify objects, make comparisons and solve problems. For example, teachers can take students outdoors to practice counting objects that they find, such as leaves, rocks and flowers, as a way to begin learning math.
Compared to the traditional model of classroom STEM education, which keeps young students in a passive mode rather than an active one, natural settings can stimulate a student’s innate curiosity. Allowing students to explore, discover and engage in hands-on activities contributes to a strong foundation in STEM learning. By allowing preschoolers to exercise initiative by investigating the living world around them, educators can teach relevant STEM skills.
Ways to Encourage STEM in Education
The following science activity explores the effects of sunlight and shadow movement.
Take the children outdoors in the morning to observe the shadows of a tree. Outline the shadow with a piece of chalk. Return in the afternoon to see if the shadows have changed. Ask the children questions about the change they have observed.
As an educator, you can also facilitate STEM learning by encouraging a child’s natural curiosity about the outside world. Take note of what the children do during play and ask open-ended “what” questions. “What” questions focus on what students notice, what they are doing and what is happening.
A few examples include the following:
- What did you try?
- What do you notice about ________?
- What do you think will happen if we________?
- What makes you think so?
Offering educational books such as field guides can help students identify a wide variety of wildlife and natural objects like rocks and minerals, which can enhance natural science learning.
Take children on nature walks around the school or playground. Find trees or shrubs that have flowers, leaves or fruit. Have the children collect what is growing on the plants that you find. Back in the classroom, encourage the students to notice the color, shape, texture, temperature and weight of their finds. Help students look up and read about their finds in the appropriate field guides.
STEM education can begin in preschool, as soon as children develop a natural curiosity about the world around them. Encouraging young students to take initiative, be active and engage with others in the environment is not only good for learning STEM skills, it can also contribute to better classroom participation and long-term academic success.
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