Introducing STEM into the class curriculum before the age of eight can have a significant impact on a student’s academic success for years to come.
Historically, standardized academic achievements have placed a lot of emphasis on literacy in early childhood education, and less emphasis on STEM curriculum. However, research consistently shows that an earlier introduction to STEM provides interdisciplinary development across numerous school subjects, including literacy. When STEM is introduced early to young minds, they are given the opportunity to communicate and explain complex reasoning - an essential skill in language development.
This complementary effect is seen across various interdisciplinary studies. This is because STEM helps young minds exercise skills and functions that influence the way they learn, such as: problem-solving, critical thinking, conceptual learning, and verbal communication skills. The stronger these skills are at a young age, the easier the mind can absorb, categorize, and utilize information in later studies and across various subjects.
As an educator or administrator, deciding when, how, and what to incorporate when adding STEM to your school’s curriculum can be intimidating, so here are some tips to help guide you through the process of adding STEM to your early childhood education curriculum.
1. Start Early
Since STEM plays such an important role in the development of executive functions like self-control, sustained attention, and cognitive flexibility, it is essential to introduce STEM learning as early as possible. Early STEM fluency builds confidence in students and provides them with skills they need to learn new ideas and concepts, even outside of the sciences.
Perhaps even more critical is an introduction to STEM before kindergarten, as executive functions experience a burst of development between ages three and five. Many early elementary schools offer little to no STEM learning opportunities at all, and if they do, they are starting in 1st grade or later. this is especially true in schools and communities with a higher proportion of students of color and low-income households. Research shows that young minds of every background are naturally inclined to understand the world around them and readily apply the skills of STEM, but many just need the mentors to introduce them and the opportunities to practice.
These early learning experiences before first grade can have a profound effect on a student’s success later in education. In a 2016 study published by the American Educational Research Association, researchers found that the majority of students who entered kindergarten with low levels of general scientific knowledge continued to struggle in science in later grades (62% in third grade, and 54% in eight grade).
Incorporating simple STEM learning into pre-K studies can make all the difference for a student’s future scientific achievement and academic career. Concepts such as spatial reasoning, sequence and correspondence, and creative problem solving can all be introduced throug guided instruction from a caring stem mentor
2. Be Consistent
Another key in deciding how to integrate STEM into your educational programming, is consistency.
Without a singular cohesive program in place at the administrative level, educators are often left to fill in the gaps of their curriculum to incorporate STEM into their lesson planning. Despite enthusiastic efforts from teachers, this might mean that students are still not getting consistent, or effective, STEM instruction.
Some students might receive the same lessons from different teachers and grow bored or unchallenged, while others might be receiving lessons that are not developmentally-suited, or are structured in a way that leaves them overwhelmed or discouraged.
A consistent and cohesive curriculum applied across multiple grade levels can provide developmentally-appropriate lessons that build STEM skills in each grade. With the curriculum being determined at the administrative level, students experience a compounding effect: growing their STEM skills year by year, and being consistently challenged in new ways.
This cohesive approach also equips educators with a plan for continuous development, and streamlines the curriculum so that students don’t experience a gap in their STEM education as they progress through each grade level. When educators are relieved from being the researcher, developer, and implementer of their own individual STEM lessons, it frees them to freely operate as a STEM mentor to their students - keeping the inspiration, curiosity, and excitement present and growing.
We’re also cognizant that stem educators are inundated with STEM resources, products, resources without the a structured support program to support student learning.
3. Empower Educators
Empowering young children in STEM also requires the empowerment of the educators who are teaching them. The current need for more STEM curriculum integration is not due to a lack of enthusiasm of the children, parents, or teachers in most cases. Even so, there are a variety of obstacles that educators might face outside of programming and resources.
Even with an eagerness to add STEM learning to the classroom, some teachers still have their own anxiety, low self-confidence, or gendered assumptions about STEM topics. Not only can this influence the effectiveness of a new curriculum, but these anxieties and biases can also be transferred to the students.
Growing confident critical thinkers of young students requires having confident STEM mentors to guide them. By providing thorough training, resources, and support, you can empower educators to lead the classroom with curiosity, excitement, and enthusiasm and pass on these feelings around STEM to their students.
Particularly in early childhood education, providing teachers with hands-on, experiential learning experiences (a very effective learning model for early STEM development) helps them empathize with their students - mirroring their own curious and joyful approach to STEM.
Confident STEM Mentors
When educators are empowered and excited to be teaching STEM, they become inspiring STEM mentors - promoting positive attitudes, confidence, and natural curiosity without hesitation or unconscious biases.
Since STEM is mutually inclusive of other teaching instruction, an empowered educator can skillfully weave STEM skills and lessons into other classroom activities and subjects seamlessly. This gives students regular practice and application of the critical thinking, verbal communication, and cognitive flexibility skills so prevalent in STEM. As a mentor, a teacher can also monitor and balance the right amount of challenge for their students to keep these skills active without overwhelming or discouraging them.
4. Build a Web of STEM Learning
As an administrator (or educator), you can further the progress of the classroom by connecting both parents and educators with opportunities with engaging and interactive STEM activities. Providing equitable opportunities for all students to learn these skills takes an ecosystem approach of enabling the resources available to you, while also finding new resources to help students succeed.
Activating the Community Network
Activating a network of museums, libraries, and community organizations can contribute to a web-effect of STEM learning, and continue to build connections in young students through experiential learning.
Many museums and libraries partner with non-profit organizations to bring learning labs and special STEM events to their facilities. Collaborating with your community partners and organizations to bring or create events like this can help build a multi-dimensional infrastructure of experiences for young learners outside of the classroom.
After school programs and special events hosted at the school are also ways you can activate and involve the community to help create a positive learning ecosystem for students.
A full integration of STEM into a child’s earliest education can greatly benefit from contributions by all ecosystems surrounding a child, including at home. In addition to connecting parents to extracurricular activities in the community, providing resources for parents to continue STEM learning and activities at home can further advance a child’s development in these subjects.
This might include links to digital resources and apps, lists of questions to ask their child that inspire complex reasoning, or just clearly communicating that you exist as a resource to them.
Continuing Educator Support
Teachers often face their own time and budget restrictions that limit their investments in new teaching methods and professional development. By providing the resources for teachers to learn, train on new ideas, and cultivate their own inspiration and enthusiasm, teachers can continue to share that enthusiasm with their students and focus their energy into the classroom.
Educators and students also benefit from having open and receptive communication with school administration to keep the curriculum and its implementation fresh and effective. Creating an accessible system for teachers to share curriculum ideas with administration and with each other creates a collaborative environment to continue to grow and succeed with the curriculum.
Finding Additional Resources
Finding additional resources for both your students and their educators is essential to create a thriving STEM curriculum. Each school system faces its own unique challenges. Some students have limited access to technology or internet access at home, and some schools face limited curriculum budgets to incorporate the STEM learning programs they’d like for their students. Finding organizations, grants, and opportunities that can assist you and your students could be the difference in closing the STEM gap for the next generation.
STEM in early childhood education gives students the skills they need to succeed for the rest of their academic career, and as adults. It teaches children how to learn, how to form ideas, how to explain their ideas, and how to solve problems.
To reach these learning objectives takes a departure from curricula that is focused on memorization and recognition, and instead teaches students to be curious and to seek a deeper understanding of conceptual ideas. In early childhood education, this especially means implementing hands-on activities and programs with research-based design, to allow students to be creative and teachers to be adaptive.
In addition to starting early, being consistent, providing proper training for educators, and enabling a network of STEM resources for students, this kind of structured curriculum can provide the framework for students to gain a solid foundation in STEM fluency and empower their educators to be inspiring STEM mentors.