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4 ways to enhance STEM in preK classrooms

Early childhood educator discusses how to leverage natural curiosity in prek classrooms for STEM learning and excitement.

Young children are natural scientists eager to discover all they can about the world around them. Technology, too, can expand students’ interest in STEM, as well as their ability to acquire information and solve problems—even in preK classrooms.

In Waco Independent School District (ISD), our prekindergarten program provides a learning environment that affords each child opportunities to use their natural curiosity to make sense of their world. Over the last two years, we’ve dramatically increased students’ time on task in STEM, while helping them get a jump-start on learning key concepts and skills.

Here are 4 ways we’re sparking young learners’ excitement in STEM, while preparing them for kindergarten and beyond:

1. Provide meaningful science experiences for future learning and excitement.

Children enter preK classrooms with many conceptions about the world, which they’ve gained from prior experiences. Meaningful science learning experiences help children investigate those pre-existing ideas while building a foundation for additional knowledge. They also help increase children’s understanding of living things, cycles, changes and patterns—concepts that organize the learning of science.

In our classrooms, prekindergarteners participate in simple investigations that help them begin to develop the skills of asking questions, gathering information, communicating findings, and making informed decisions. Using their own senses and common tools such as a hand lens, they can make observations and collect information. Through these experiences, they build a strong foundation for future learning and inquiry.

2. Use engaging, age-appropriate and challenging technology applications.

Technology, too, can extend students’ knowledge and enrich their learning of curriculum content and concepts. That’s why we teach our preK students the basic functions of computers and related technologies. Through our program, they develop techniques for handling and controlling various input devices. This helps them become increasingly confident, independent users of age-appropriate technologies and software programs.

The use of technology is especially important for children who might not have access to such tools at home. This is the case for many of the children participating in our free prekindergarten program.

(Next page: STEM in preK classrooms tips 3-4)

3. Find a comprehensive, standards-aligned curriculum that encourages learning-by-doing.

While technology can serve as an effective learning tool for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s also important to find curriculum programs that are aligned to current standards and that provide resources for both students and teachers—especially since science isn’t typically an area of strength for many early childhood educators.

Indeed, in our district, one issue we faced was that we felt that our state-adopted prekindergarten curriculum was lacking in science. As such, teachers didn’t incorporate much science into their daily classroom activities, and the science they did have was surface-level so students didn’t dig very deep.

To turn things around, in fall 2014 we began using a program called STEMscopes™ Early Explorer. The STEM curriculum program is built from the ground up to Head Start, state and national preK and kindergarten guidelines, and it is scaffolded to prepare students for NGSS kindergarten standards. What we particularly like is that it encourages learning-by-doing by bringing together centers, big books, hands-on kits and activities to prepare students in preK classrooms for elementary school. It also includes teacher background, materials lists, vocabulary cards, center set-up videos, and a “burning question” for each lesson to support teachers as well.

4. Involve parents, too.

To engage parents in their children’s learning, we send home letters (in English and Spanish) at the beginning and end of each STEM curriculum module. The letters explain what we’re focusing on and give parents ideas of questions they can ask their children on the way home from school or at the dinner table. Parents say that their children are now talking about STEM more and even want to redo experiments at home. We also receive great feedback on the vocabulary children are using at home.

Increasing STEM learning by 6,120 minutes in one year

Since 2014, we’ve seen a substantial increase in our students’ STEM knowledge, skills and vocabulary, as well as their time-on-task.

In an implementation study conducted during the 2014-15 school year, teachers said that they were better able to incorporate STEM throughout their preK classrooms and the entire day. In fact, by spring 2015, teachers reported spending an average of 36 minutes per day on STEM instruction, compared to just two minutes a day before they began using STEMscopes. The result was an additional 6,120 minutes of STEM learning that year.

In Waco ISD, we have a very strong prekindergarten program and our focus on STEM makes it even richer. As a result, our students now have a strong foundation in STEM. In addition, many teachers say that while previously science was their weakest area, it’s now one of their biggest areas of focus—and their favorite part of the day.

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