The concept of a STEM-focused education (science, technology, engineering, and math) has grown in popularity in recent years. As highlighted by the U.S. Department of Education, activities like problem-solving, gathering and evaluating evidence, decision-making, and processing information have become crucial life skills for a successful 21st-century existence.
These basic concepts are the foundational focus of STEM education—with the acronym standing for science, technology, engineering, and math with the common addition of computer science as a foundational component. As of 2018 2.4 million STEM jobs were projected to remain vacant, while STEM-related occupations are predicted to continue to grow at a robust 13% clip between 2017 and 2027.
While it’s important for higher education to have a mission and vision that helps to promote STEM education, it’s also critical to begin the STEM journey at a much younger age. Here are some of the primary reasons STEM education should be implemented—both in and out of the classroom—right from the earliest days of childhood.
While formulas and calculations are essential to most STEM activities, they are hardly the only focus. Most STEM learning, especially in early childhood, revolves around teaching each subject through hands-on experiences.
For instance, many of NASA’s STEM-related activity suggestions involve hands-on projects like creating a paper Mars helicopter or building a soda-straw rocket.
Using kinesthetic learning can develop a student’s knowledge of subjects like mathematics and science in an experiential manner, rather than strictly in written form. This can provide valuable experience that continues to serve them throughout their careers.
The experiential learning that naturally takes place through STEM learning has proven to result in a powerful increase in retention. In fact, experiential learning has been shown to boast an impressive 80 to 90% retention rate, compared to an underwhelming 5% from traditional methods of education.
STEM education in early childhood allows children to begin to learn and retain a knowledge base that they can build on as they get older. Whether that’s through higher education or through professional development, STEM is critical to optimizing their educational trajectory throughout the rest of their lives.
Gamification has become an increasingly popular form of motivation and productivity. In fact, 90% of employees are more productive when engaged in gamified activities.
This plays to the strengths of STEM education, in which gamification—i.e. learning through games—plays a crucial role. By exploring important subjects like science and engineering through the lens of playing a game, children can learn to apply gamification to professional and educational pursuits in a profitable manner.
As explained by The National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine, language is “simultaneously a cognitive ability and a cultural resource.” Children use it from a very early age to learn and engage in their homes and communities.
As they enter educational ages, STEM can facilitate children’s language development. This can increase vocabulary and open up the doors for conversations, which can help children develop language and general knowledge of a subject at the same time. It also equips them to communicate across cultural boundaries — a skill that will serve them for the rest of their professional lives.
As pointed out in the U.S. Department of Education’s description referenced above, things like processing information, evaluating evidence, and problem-solving are potential benefits of STEM education. Part of this comes from the natural tendency for STEM activities to encourage collaborative reasoning.
Classic STEM activities, such as robotics competitions or science fairs, as well as various collaborative tech tools, encourage students to work together as they innovate and think critically about each subject. This ability to work as part of a high-functioning team is instrumental in long-term success, whether an individual is working with fellow students as they learn or utilizing their knowledge to pull together a project proposal in the workplace.
Readiness for Higher Education and Career Success
While prioritizing STEM education from an early age can have clear benefits to individual development, one of the leading reasons for the rise in focus on STEM is that not enough students and workers have the right critical skills and knowledge compared to what is needed.
STEM employers often struggle to fill jobs because they can’t find qualified talent; this is helping drive up salaries and income potential in high-need STEM positions and fields. With the explosive growth of technology in all sectors, students of information assurance and cybersecurity can provide critically needed skills and solutions. An increasingly automated manufacturing sector requires human talent that students of mechatronics and other IT or engineering fields are better equipped to offer. Preparing children to meet the needs of the workforce and to attain the requisite higher education can start with early childhood STEM exposure and emphasis.
Filling these critical careers also requires students to be equipped to succeed in the right college programs. Unfortunately, many students opt not to pursue STEM degrees because they perceive the subjects as being too difficult. With lifelong exposure and preparation to tackle STEM subjects, students can overcome this perception and make these advanced degrees and coursework not only less intimidating, but a natural extension of their early education.
How to Incorporate STEM in Early Childhood
The ability to incorporate STEM into early childhood education can remain a challenge. Fortunately, there are many avenues that can be sought out, both in the classroom as well as in the home. Here are a few suggestions for both settings:
Tips for Parents
Parents can greatly enhance the STEM experience at home in a variety of ways:
- Go on a nature walk: A nature walk provides a plethora of hands-on opportunities that engage the senses and open up discussions related to real-world subjects like biology and physics.
- Teach a cooking class: Home ec, specifically cooking and baking, can also be used to teach STEM through things like measurements and chemical reactions.
- Play with elements: Interacting with water, earth, sand, and other natural sensory experiences can spark conversations about a variety of STEM subjects.
- Use a game: Whether you’re playing Minecraft online or Jenga on a table, games provide a plethora of opportunities to discuss engineering, math, gravity, and many other STEM topics.
- Build together: Working with wood, clay, paper, and so on can be an ideal avenue to engage children in natural, interesting activities that directly relate to a variety of STEM subjects, such as measurements or engineering.
- Read together: STEM reading doesn’t have to consist of dry textbooks in school, as parents can encourage children to read about the history of important people and events in STEM subjects, as well.
- Repair a household item: Much like building something, including children in the repair process can create opportunities to discuss things like the scientific struggle to preserve and reuse or the math typically involved in making a home repair.
By looking for STEM opportunities around the home, parents can help to enhance the lessons that their children are learning in the classroom.
Tips for Educators
Here are a few suggestions to help teachers enhance the STEM experience for their students, as well:
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions: If you want to cultivate an atmosphere of interest and introspection, make sure to embrace a Socratic method with your students’ STEM experiences.
- Hands-on assignments: Investing in creating a hands-on experience through projects and activities for your students is a key aspect of facilitating retention.
- Conduct experiments: Experiments are an excellent way to combine STEM factors like collaboration and kinesthetic learning.
- Get the children’s feedback: Along with asking questions, it’s also important to request feedback and garner any inquiries from students throughout and after the learning process as well.
For teachers, the focus of providing a quality STEM education should revolve around the presentation of information and the involvement of the students.