STEM Is Everywhere

Hedda SharapanThe great response to last month’s newsletter on "Fred's approach to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)" made me realize that we’re all hungry for everyday language for these concepts.

For children, though, STEM is second nature. They're constantly exploring and experimenting (Science), working with all kinds of tools (Technology), problem-solving (Engineering), and comparing things (Math). That's what STEM is. That's why you can find it everywhere.

It’s been interesting for me, too, to find that STEM is everywhere, and I’ve actually had fun looking for it. Our popular Neighborhood construction site video is a great example. We all know young children, who tend to feel small and powerless, are especially fascinated with big and powerful equipment. Fred focused on this and other social-emotional aspects in this video, but let’s look at all the STEM learning we can find in it and all the ways we can talk about that with children.

Here are some of the many things I found when I looked at the construction site through a STEM lens: there’s Science in determining the composition of the dirt and where to dig; Technology in using digging “tools,” like backhoes and dump trucks; Engineering in figuring out how deep to dig the hole and how to design the different trucks; and Math in measuring where to dig, counting how many trucks and people are needed.

Here are some innovative everyday ways that early childhood teachers have built on children's natural interest in STEM concepts. Maybe they'll spark some ideas for you, too:

Digging a hole

I've heard wonderful stories about long-term projects at centers where the children become engrossed in the process of something as simple and "everyday" as digging a hole outside. Usually it starts with a child digging a little hole, and soon the children want to work together to see how big the hole can be. They try out different kinds of digging tools — that's Technology. They want to know how deep they've gone — that's Math. They might add water or discover bugs — that's Science. They might build dams to control the water— that's Engineering. And with that kind of engaging learning, there are fewer behavior problems.

A STEM visitor at circle time

One of my favorite stories is from a center that was undergoing renovation. You can imagine how fascinated the children were with the sights and sounds of the construction. Seeing this as a great learning opportunity, the center director asked the construction project manager to periodically come to circle time to talk about the process and answer questions. It was a great way to nurture curiosity, stimulate pretend play and creativity, and give children a real appreciation of "community helpers."

On the bookshelf

I know teachers who make sure the children have well-illustrated non-fiction books with vivid photos or beautiful drawings (maybe not even written for young children). I also know teachers who have a hard time working with children’s interest in spiders, bugs and snakes, so they nurture that curiosity by providing books on those creatures.

Non-fiction books can also boost children's "scientific" vocabulary. Haven't you been amazed to hear children correctly identify dinosaurs or different trucks and construction equipment -- earth movers, fork lifts, dump trucks, cement mixers, front loaders, backhoes, etc.? They've learned those names by noticing differences -- that's s science skill! These children also gain a sense of pride and mastery, like the feeling we get when we can identify some of the flowers in a garden.

I hope you'll keep looking for ways to translate STEM concepts into everyday language -- and STEM experiences into everyday learning. You might just find that it's not as "new" as you once thought. It's everywhere -­in the children's lives and ours.

P.S. I'm heading out for the National Family Child Care Conference this week. If you're there, come say hello. I'll be presenting a full-day pre-conference session on "Communicating with Families: What we can continue to learn from Fred Rogers" and a workshop on "Helping Children Want to Become Readers and Writers."

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