STEM learning, beginning with preschool STEM, can prevent inequities in science and math achievement when students start kindergarten, and prevent the gap from growing. offers pathways to high-growth, high-paying careers, and is key to global economic competitiveness. However, inequities in science and math achievement already exist when students start kindergarten, a recent study indicates—and these gaps persist as students move through school.
The study’s findings suggest that creating high-quality opportunities for STEM learning even before kindergarten, such as in formal preschool settings, could help develop students’ interest and aptitude in these subjects while also reducing or eliminating troubling racial and ethnic disparities. “The earlier we intervene, the better,” said Paul Morgan, a professor of education at Penn State’s College of Education and the paper’s lead author.
Preschool STEM strategies
Over my more than two decades of working in early childhood education at Austin ISD in Texas, I learned a lot about engaging young children in STEM learning effectively. Here are four key strategies that school systems and pre-K programs can use to accomplish this goal:
1. Leverage students’ natural curiosity. Young children are naturally curious, persistent and creative—the essential qualities needed for solving scientific problems. Inspiring budding young scientists is simple when teachers use investigative and inquiry-based learning activities in their preschool STEM programs.
2. Make it fun. Pre-K math and science don’t have to be boring or intimidating. As young children investigate the world around them through hands-on play, they employ the scientific process—just like actual scientists and engineers.
In fact, research shows that children are natural scientists and mathematicians. They stack blocks, count steps up a slide, and fill and empty cups of water in the bathtub. These activities help them explore early math concepts such as measurement, spatial awareness, number sense and problem-solving.
3. Communicate and model preschool STEM thinking. Young children are constantly taking in the words and actions around them to learn. When teachers model and communicate their everyday thinking and problem-solving, children learn important STEM concepts in fun and positive ways.
As you put away toys, for instance, count the number of items there are out loud. When children play, ask open-ended questions to encourage STEM-related talk: “How did you figure that out?” “Why did you do it that way?” “How do you know?”
4. Introduce them to key STEM behaviors. Young children use a basic form of the scientific method—a series of steps that include observing, forming questions, making predictions, carrying out experiments and discussing—to analyze and make sense of the world around them. They investigate, form hypotheses based on what they observe and then test those ideas through play.
With guided activities, pre-K teachers can give young students a solid foundation in the science skills and practices they’ll learn formally throughout their K-12 experience. In the process, children will learn to think like scientists.
Here are some examples I’ve found to be helpful when working with children through guided play.
- Asking questions and defining problems: Introduce children to a strange object, place or creature. (It could be a photo or the actual object itself.) Ask them what questions they have about it. Ask them how they might find answers to their questions.
- Developing and using models: Ask children to show someone what a snake looks like, a house, or some other simple object. Give them multiple ways to do this: they can draw the object, sculpt it out of clay or make it out of blocks or pipe cleaners. Talk about why they chose the method they did and what does or doesn’t work well about that method.
- Planning and carrying out investigations: Have children build ramps and explore rolling objects down their ramps. Ask them how they think making their ramp taller or steeper might affect how far or how fast an object travels down the ramp. Have them test their theory.
Using these strategies can build a strong STEM foundation among young learners. As research suggests, this is essential for ensuring that students begin kindergarten on par with their peers in these critical subjects.