STEM education myths in early grades

Students see more success in K-12 when they tackle STEM concepts in early grades
By: | March 25, 2019
First- and second-grade STEM students at Blue Academy in Indianapolis experiment enthusiastically with technology because, as digital natives, they are not intimidated by applications or devices, their teachers say.First- and second-grade STEM students at Blue Academy in Indianapolis experiment enthusiastically with technology because, as digital natives, they are not intimidated by applications or devices, their teachers say.

Consider these ideas: Some kids are STEM kids and some aren’t. Students need to master science and math basics before moving on to STEM concepts. STEM focuses on future jobs, so educators should concentrate instruction in middle and high school.

Wrong, wrong and wrong, say the experts. In fact, such myths contribute to many students’ STEM struggles. Add to these a 2016 study that found kids show up for kindergarten with uneven exposure to science, technology, engineering and math. That gap—which can dog students through middle school—is so real that researchers can more consistently predict future academic achievement based on preschool math abilities than on early reading or attention skills.

There’s a remedy: Expose all children as early as possible to STEM and the gap narrows. Yes, you read that right. Researchers believe the science-math gap is really a pervasive early opportunity gap. Ready for some more truths?

Myth 1: STEM overwhelms young learners

The combination of science, technology, engineering and math (you can also add “art” for STEAM) may sound like big-kid material—but only if you’re not a digital native. Ask Rebecca Bersani, a STEAM teacher at Blue Academy in the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township in Indianapolis. To her—and her first- and second-grade students—there’s nothing more natural than working with an iPad and a green screen to create a digital presentation about what kindness means.

“Very young kids are actually the least intimidated by any of this technology,” says Bersani, who graduated last year from Indiana University Bloomington. “The whole environment of STEAM is to explore and create. This is a place where there’s no expectation of perfection, and our youngest kids get that.”

Decades of working with young learners have shown that all students can think like scientists and engineers if only educators provide the experience, says Annie Corley-Hand, principal of Mary Kay McMillin Early Childhood Center, a K-2 school in Berkeley Heights Public Schools in New Jersey.

Read more: 6 ways to add STEM every day

Her kindergartners designed and built a cardboard doghouse for Timber, the school mascot (and Corley-Hand’s Australian labradoodle). Her first-graders have also studied sound and vibration by creating instruments out of cardboard, wood and other found materials. “At this age, a lot of STEM even looks like arts and crafts, but I make sure the parents understand it’s far from that,” says Corley-Hand. “We want kids acting like scientists: learning how to observe, asking questions, designing, using science vocabulary, and failing and trying again.”

Remember that doghouse? It took the kindergartners numerous attempts, including a massive remodel and expansion, before they constructed a suitable home for Timber.

“The amazing thing is how well kids can design and problem-solve at very early ages,” says Corley-Hand. “The fact that they saw the doghouse project through speaks to how resourceful, creative and persistent they can be when they’re challenged and provided opportunity.”

Myth 2: STEM overwhelms elementary school teachers

It’s no surprise: Elementary teachers might not be comfortable with science or technology. “Early elementary teachers are generalists,” says Vanessa Stratton, vice president of programs for the STEM nonprofit Project Lead The Way. “So, yes, they need plenty of encouragement and support.”

Not a problem. Project Lead The Way, for example, builds in a two-day on-site teacher training to get educators comfortable with its pedagogy. Some teachers must also learn a new classroom style.

“STEM brings a bit of a different mindset,” Stratton says. “The teacher takes on a facilitator role, guiding students to work together to explore, create and come up with solutions.” Learning to teach STEM can transform instruction for all, she adds.

Corley-Hand has found that teachers will take on STEM if it’s introduced gradually and with plenty of encouragement. At staff meetings, she has shown videos of what quality STEM looks like in a classroom. But her school started with simple, premade, ready-to-go design challenges. Corley-Hand calls them “STEM in a box” because they had all the supplies, lesson plans and teaching notes needed to carry out a class STEM challenge.

Nowadays, every classroom has a makerspace, the school has a tech director, and teachers and kids are coding. “One of the keys to our success has been high-quality, ongoing professional development, but also learning communities—teachers supporting each other,” says Corley-Hand.

Myth 3: We don’t have time for STEM

STEM can be included in myriad ways, but the most effective and practical method is integration. The basic idea is that STEM never takes time away from another subject. It simply becomes a part of whatever else you’re teaching or doing.

For example, Corley-Hand’s kindergartners read Baby Bear’s Chairs. Then, they practice math and engineering skills by designing and constructing a chair out of recyclables. First-graders use robots to learn basic coding, and then write a how-to book about it. In other design challenges, her 3- to 8-year-olds have engineered troll bridges and built houses that can withstand a big, bad wolf.

Myth 4: We don’t have money for STEM

You can certainly spend a lot on STEM. Some schools use 3D printers and other expensive technology. The PTO at Corley-Hand’s school raised $15,000 one year to install makerspace carts in every classroom and to buy books, robots and other supplies. Still, donated recyclables remain STEM staples.

In Indianapolis, Bersani uses tech, but also plenty of paper, cups, string and miscellaneous art supplies. At Waco ISD in Texas, pre-K instructional coach Kristen Peters says the STEM program requires cotton balls, cardboard and other inexpensive props. “Most of the supplies are what we would have anyhow, and multiple projects use the same supplies,” says Peters.

Besides, there may be financial support out there for STEM initiatives, including grants from major corporations. “Do some research before you say you can’t afford it because there are many organizations interested in STEM education,” says Stratton, of Project Lead The Way. “Industry knows that we need to focus on our youngest students, and they know that money invested in early STEM will be really impactful over time.”

Myth 5: The correct order is basics first, then STEM (also known as “wait until they get older”)

Rote memorization of basic content and concepts can dominate early education. But to conclude that students must master basic math facts in order to advance to STEM is to buy into an outmoded learning model.

STEM, like math, isn’t an advanced concept; it needs to be taught at all ages in developmentally appropriate ways. “Even our 4- and 5-year-olds actively program,” says Stratton. “But we scaffold and build to it in a way that’s very approachable.” Besides, research is clear: Delaying STEM increases the chances that certain kids will never see themselves as scientists, programmers or engineers.

On the other hand, teaching STEM—even though it often centers on creating and producing—doesn’t focus on bringing home a paycheck. “We have kindergartners design new paintbrushes,” says Stratton. “They have no problem understanding they are designing something real and something useful.”

In fact, experts say, it’s becoming increasingly important to get kids to connect education with doing something useful, be it gardening (environmental science or plant biology, anyone?) or designing a doghouse or paintbrush.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer in Southern California.