Science and engineering are core components of STEM, which has gained increased attention and support over the past few years. Political officials and business leaders continuously stress that the integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in the classroom is the key to America’s future. Studies and job projections also support the importance of STEM education. A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projected that the number of STEM-related jobs will total 8.6 million by 2018. Statistics like these may reinforce the need for STEM education, but the actual implementation of integrating STEM in the classroom faces a number of challenges. This is especially true for the science and engineering parts of STEM. St. Catherine University’s National Center for STEM Elementary Education lists the following as a few of the challenges that STEM education faces in the classroom:

  • Almost 33% of elementary students become disinterested or show a negative interest in science by the fourth grade.
  • More than a third of elementary teachers feel like they do not have the appropriate qualifications needed to teach science.
  • Many of today’s elementary teachers are likely to be the ones who lost interest in STEM subjects in elementary school.

These challenges ultimately raise the question of what is the best time and way to integrate STEM concepts in the classroom. The specifics of how STEM is going to best be integrated are still being finalized, but STEM is becoming an increasingly prominent component in both preschool and elementary classrooms. To help support STEM instruction in the classroom, we’ve come up with a few ways you can help promote science and engineering concepts in your preschool or elementary classroom. 

STEM in the Preschool World

Children are naturally curious, which is one reason why people are pushing for STEM to begin in preschool. If children already have questions about how the weather works or why things float or sink in water, then teaching them the core basics of STEM subjects in preschool will only foster that curiosity and inquisitiveness. The ultimate goal for STEM in preschool classrooms, according to Teach Preschool, is to encourage children to investigate STEM concepts instead of exploring or memorizing them. If you’re looking for ways to promote STEM in your preschool classroom, here are a few tips from Teach Preschool:

  • Preschool teachers should become more intentional about what they are doing in their classroom by reflecting on what they are already doing and then coming up with activities to help children advance their knowledge of STEM subjects by further investigating core concepts.
  • Encourage children to ask questions, predict the possible outcome(s), and then plan what data they would need to collect to find the right answer.
  • Use your classroom’s natural surroundings to help children learn, explore, and investigate. If your students live near an ocean, for example, then use the ocean, its features, and the plants and animals that live in the ocean to help students learn the core concepts of STEM.

One of the best ways you can promote science, engineering, and other STEM subjects in your classroom is through play. Using architectural unit blocks during block play, for example, can help preschoolers understand the basic concepts of engineering. Giving preschoolers architectural design photos and then asking them to replicate what they see in the photos with their blocks is another great way to promote STEM concepts. Helping children learn about plant cycles and gardening by letting them grow their own fruits, vegetables, and plants with the Earthbox Early Learning Site Pack can help children learn and further investigate science concepts. If you need other ideas for how to promote STEM concepts through play, check out The Budding Scientist and The Budding Builder.

Using these and other approaches to promoting STEM in the classroom will help preschoolers learn the basic concepts needed to further their understanding of STEM concepts in elementary school. Starting STEM education in preschool will hopefully help children develop an interest in STEM at an earlier age, which will hopefully prevent more kids from losing interest in STEM subjects.

Teaching STEM at the Elementary Level

As evident in the statistics listed at the beginning of this blog post, many of the challenges STEM education is currently facing occurs at the elementary level. Disinterest among students, inadequate teacher training, and the fact that a portion of teachers disliked STEM subjects when they were in school are issues that need to be addressed. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) believes that the following two concepts are two of the best ways to meet the challenges of STEM education in K-12 programs:

  1. Education Initiatives – Many universities, museums, and other organizations offer a variety of educational initiatives to help support STEM instruction. The National Science Foundation’s TeachEngineering Digital Library, for example, offers science and engineering content for teachers to use in their classrooms. PBS is another organization that offers a variety of resources to help support STEM instruction. Many universities also collaborate with nearby schools to create unique K-12 programs to help children in the public school system learn more about science and engineering.
  2. Educator Involvement – Patrick J. Mooney, who is a faculty professional specialist at the University of Notre Dame, best summarizes this concept by saying that teachers must be “active members” of the science and engineering communities and “their membership must be evident” to students. This means that K-12 teachers can potentially work alongside university researchers to conduct research and develop activities for their classrooms. This would also help university researchers learn more about the K-12 environment.

If your school or school district is not already implementing initiatives like these, make an effort to be an advocate for these and other similar ideas.

Another way elementary students can learn and practice STEM concepts is through participating in fun educational activities. Grades and test scores are such a primary focus at the elementary level that many educators don’t have time to include as many fun educational activities in their lesson plans. It is important, however, for educators to include these activities in their lesson plans because educational activities that involve science and engineering topics can reinforce and further children’s understanding of STEM subjects. Children can learn and practice engineering concepts, for example, by building a variety of innovative structures and models with items such as KEVA® Contraptions and the Hanz™ Genius Kit. Other fun educational activities, such as the Koontz™ Walking Tightrope or the Koontz™ Chaotic Pendulum, can also help children learn and understand magnetism, motion, gravity, and other scientific concepts. A variety of software is also available to help children learn and practice STEM concepts. SAM Animation, for example, enables students to creatively express their ideas and practice making and telling their stories through animation. 

It is also a good idea for educators to be aware of new studies and ideas about STEM-based learning. There has been a recent push for art to be included in STEM, which would make the acronym STEAM if the educational community decides to implement this change. Whether or not art will be a part of STEM-based learning is still being debated, but using art to teach STEM concepts is another great way to help students become more interested in STEM.

Be the Game Changer

Teaching STEM in preschool and meeting the challenges STEM education faces in elementary school will help further the vision of STEM’s importance in America’s future, but an overall strategy is needed to meet the ultimate goal of keeping students interested in STEM subjects so they can potentially pursue a STEM career. In their September 2010 Report to the President, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology shared a “two-pronged strategy for transforming K-12 education” to better respond to economic challenges and opportunities:

  1. Preparation – Adequately preparing students to learn STEM subjects will help them develop a strong foundation in STEM and will help them use the knowledge they acquire personally and professionally.
  2. Inspiration – We can prepare students all we want, but inspiring students is where the real changes must occur in order to motivate them to stay interested in STEM subjects and possibly pursue a career in a STEM field.

The second part of this strategy is particularly notable because many high school graduates that go on to pursue a degree or career in a STEM field credit a specific class and/or teacher as being the game changer in their perception of a STEM subject. We hope that the opportunity to be a game changer for at least one student will motivate you to find fun new ways to teach STEM subjects and to advocate for resources that will help you and your students become more interested in STEM subjects. Be sure to check out our STEM landing page for a variety of additional resources you can use in the classroom.