What does STEM look like in preschool and what is STEM anyway?

by Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. on June 6, 2012

in Bam Radio Series on Early Childhood Education, STEM in ECE

When Rae Pica from Bam Radio wrote me and asked me to participate in this next radio show, I looked at the topic and immediately knew that I had no idea what the topic was even about.  I mean, you may have heard of the acronym STEM before but I hadn’t heard of it and I sure didn’t want to talk about a topic that I knew nothing about.  Or did I? Come to find out, I know quite a bit about STEM and it is something that I bet you know more about than you think too!

Rae Pica with Dr. Sherri Killins, Lilian G. Katz, Ph.D.,Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed.

First of all, if you haven’t ever taken a minute to listen to one of the Bam Radio interviews I have shared here before then this one is a must do!  Just listening to these ladies talk motivates and inspires me to get busy teaching!  Today’s discussion is titled, “What, Teaching STEM in Preschool, Really?”  Click here or here to listen!

What is STEM?

According to Dr. Sherri Killins, “What STEM does is give a label to what you are already doing… helping children to explore, observe, ask questions, predict, integrate their learning…  its what we’ve always done in early childhood education.”

The Distinction between Academic Learning and Intellectual Learning

Dr. Lilian Katz says, “It is important to know the distinction between academic learning and intellectual learning…. and most people don’t get that.”

Academic learning “by definition is the stuff that is clear like the alphabet, it’s no logic, it just has to be memorized… and it does have to be learned eventually.” (Lilian Katz on Bam Radio)

Intellectual Learning “has to do with reasoning,  hypothesizing, and predicting, theorizing, and so forth and that’s natural.” (Lilian Katz on Bam Radio)

You want children to learn their academic skills in the service of their intellect so when they come and say, show me how to measure this or show me how to write that because they are doing an investigation – which is an intellectually based activity and it comes so naturally to all children.”  (Lilian Katz on Bam Radio)

How to apply Stem in your preschool classroom

Our experts give the following advice…

  • Become more intentional about what you are doing.  If you start by reflecting on what you are doing already, you will find you that you are already doing things in STEM and with an increase in your language and your ability to support children to predict what might happen next or explore or question, you will already be advancing those ideas of science, technology, engineering, and math.” (Dr. Killins on Bam Radio)
  • Remember that “The basic dispositions of science are asking questions then predicting what the outcome might be and then saying, ‘well, what data do I need to find out which is the right answer?’ and that is what children do in project work starting at age 3.”  (Dr. Katz on Bam Radio)
  • Do with things that are available that are in front of you. What isn’t in the best interest of advancing this knowledge is to imagine an ocean if you don’t live near an ocean or imagining a pirate that doesn’t exist. Use what is in front of you to create this learning and explore so you can test and try.” (Dr. Killins on Bam Radio)

How to learn more about STEM

  • Think about something you want to know about and explore it and look up more information and then share this information with your children.  Use your natural curiosity - go into the concept of STEM by using your own sense of curiosity. (Dr. Killins on Bam Radio)
  • Put ideas into action, reflect on them, then figure out how you can take this idea or process up another notch to invite even more exploration, questioning, hypothesizing, observation and you will see that there is always another way.

The importance of play

“There are no greater natural scientists and engineers then young children. Inquisitive learners who learn STEM concepts through play. High quality early learning environments provide children with the structure in which to build upon their natural inclination to explore, to build, and to question.”  Once again it comes down to letting the children play! (JD Chesloff shared by Rae Pica in “What, Teaching STEM in Preschool, Really?“)

The benefits of STEM

The link between early childhood and STEM is indisputable. Early exposure to STEM – whether it be in school, at a museum, a library, or just engaging in the natural trial and error of play – supports children’s overall academic growth, develops early critical thinking and reasoning skills, and enhances later interest in STEM study and careers. (JD Chesloff in Sparking a Child’s Interest in Science and Technology.”

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Comments on this entry are closed.

1 Darla Hutson June 6, 2012 at 7:11 am

Awesome stuff:) Thanks for sharing!

2 Terri June 6, 2012 at 9:25 am

Thanks for sharing this Deborah. The elementary school my daughter will probably be attending next year is a STEM school. I’ve been struggling to understand and this help A LOT. Thank you!!!

3 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 6, 2012 at 9:35 am

Your daughter is in for a wonderful learning experience!

4 School Sparks Renee June 6, 2012 at 10:02 am

Thank you for sharing this Deborah. How can a mother determine if a school is a STEM school or how do you find one? Renee

5 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 6, 2012 at 10:16 am

I wish I could answer that for you fully Renee. I think you can start by doing these things…

1. Call the school and ask them if they apply STEM and have them give you a description of that process. See if it lines up with your own research of STEM.

2. Visit the classroom and see what learning looks like. Do you see children sitting at tables or desks all day or invested in exploration, projects, moving about and even a bit noisy!

3. Perhaps contact your local school boards and ask for STEM school referrals.

6 Carrie June 6, 2012 at 10:05 am

You are definitely right… if a teacher is running a quality preschool, they should already be doing all this stuff anyway. We have been emphasizing the science portion at least these past few years through what we called “Wonder Works” training, talking about science throughout the day and also by using the CLASS assessment to increase awareness of the importance of open-ended questions and conversations.

What most don’t see is that science is everywhere, just like literacy is. You can apply science concepts to reading a book, dramatic play, art and well everywhere. Thanks for this info I’ve passed it on to my co-workers.

7 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 6, 2012 at 10:18 am

Absolutely – science, engineering, math, and technology are all around us all the time. We just have to learn how to be curious like children – how to invite investigation and exploration. I love that you are assessing your work as you go along – it will help you reach new levels of teaching and building on concepts like STEM.

8 Roopa June 6, 2012 at 10:06 am

Great information! I have been hearing about this STEM a lot and haven’t really understood it well. Thanks for sharing1!

9 Suzanne June 6, 2012 at 11:19 am

I am bookmarking this. Would I have permission to print myself a copy of that first chart? I think it would be a good visual reminder.

10 Mary Kroske June 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I am looking for some in-depth professional development for the summer or this next school year … do you know of any opportunities related to these topics? Love your post about STEM, the difference between academic and intellectual learning, and the importance of play

11 Marie June 7, 2012 at 3:57 pm

This is an wealth of great information! Is there a transcript available?

12 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 7, 2012 at 8:52 pm

No – I don’t think there is Marie.

13 Carissa June 14, 2012 at 9:05 pm

I am a children’s librarian and this article has sparked an idea for a new preschool series at my library. I am intrigued by the photos you’ve sprinkled throughout this post, but I haven’t really explored the rest of your site. Do the photos come from the projects in your sidebar? Or do you have another recommended source to go to for simple STEM project ideas (especially engineering and math!)? I also haven’t been able to listen to the BAM radio recordings yet (not sure I want to download the plug-ins required…), so if the whole interview is on specific project suggestions, then i apologize for this redundant comment. thanks for the inspiration!

14 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 14, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Hi Carissa – yes, all the photos pretty much come from different post I have blogged about in the past but if you have a specific question about any photo, feel free to ask me and I will see if I can guide you in the right direction. I am excited to hear that you can use STEM as part of your library series – in fact, it is wonderful! As for the Bam Radio show, I shared much of what was said in this post but to hear it always brings new perspective as well. I did leave out a few small pieces however:) Thank you so much for stopping by! Deborah

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