Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

From magnifying glasses and computers to blocks and counting, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) can be a powerful part of early education settings. To capitalize on this potential, Massachusetts has invested in STEM programs, and it is sharing the resulting resources.

In fiscal year 2014, the state budget included $250,000 to develop innovative preschool curriculum with a STEM focus. The Department of Early Education and Care used the money to award five grants to providers and community partners statewide, including the Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, MA, which enrolled 40 students in a new STEM preschool located at the museum.

The resulting resources — curriculum guides and other materials — are published online in English, Spanish, and other languages on the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s STEM Nexus webpage.

The investment in STEM comes at an important time in children’s life. As a Strategies for Children research brief notes:

“Young children are naturally inquisitive learners who ask an average of 76 questions per hour. Young children are also natural scientists—they make sense of the world around them by making predictions, checking them, and using evidence to make inductions and deductions.” 

STEM Curricula from Around the State

Among the curricula that were developed are diverse approaches to creating content-rich, interactive STEM instruction.

The Heritage Museums and Gardens produced “Collections: A STEM-Focused Curriculum.”

“The Collections Curriculum encourages children to be curious, to wonder, think, play, question, and connect with the world around them, so they will become innovators able to make great contributions to society,” the curriculum guide says.

The curriculum is “designed for preschoolers, specifically 4-5 year-olds. It covers all domains of development, but focuses teaching and learning activities through a STEM lens. The learning environment (indoors and out) had been carefully designed to promote STEM explorations and support and enhance the curriculum.”

The guide encourages family engagement, discusses assessment, and provides guidance for teaching earth science, the life sciences and physical sciences, engineering, and geometry. In addition, the curriculum is aligned with the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences.

Another curricular example is the SHED Children’s Campus’ Pumpkin Patch Project curriculum, which explores the life-cycle process.

The guide describes how children started out by learning about composting and studied a decomposing pumpkin.

“An activity was spontaneously created in which children observed the amount of sunlight throughout the day of two locations on SHED Children’s Campus. After reviewing the observations, it was concluded that two patches would be constructed, one designated specifically for experimental purposes in the location that received less sunlight.”

Seeds were planted indoors and moved to the outdoors. And as even avid gardeners sometime must, the children had to deal with weeds. “After researching the best possible solutions to the obstacle, it was decided that we would attempt to use seaweed particles as a way to stimulate growth and eliminate weeds.”

“The competences that the activities address are vast, and are applicable to children’s intellectual and social beings as they develop from preschoolers to kindergarteners and beyond.”

The Need for Strong STEM Educations 

Although Massachusetts is home to numerous STEM innovations, the state still faces considerable challenges.

“Today’s economy increasingly requires science and math skills. However, far too many Massachusetts students struggle with these subjects,” the Strategies’ brief says. “On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2013, 42 percent of our 4th grade students and 45 percent of our 8th grade students scored below proficient in math.” In addition: “56 percent of our 8th graders score below proficient in science.”

Colleges try to fill this gap. “After graduating high school, many students with low math skills are required to take remedial math courses in college, particularly at community colleges. Data from the Department of Higher Education show that a high percentage of students who take remedial courses do not go on to complete credit-bearing college-level math, a sign that math ability is a barrier to college completion.”

Given this, it’s clear that investing in an early STEM education is essential.

As the brief concludes: “Massachusetts should continue to invest in early childhood educator professional development, in STEM subjects as well as early literacy and social/emotional development. This includes continued state budget support for the Early Childhood Educator Scholarship for educators to pursue and complete AA and BA degrees. Supports like tutoring and study groups are also needed at the college and university level to help early educators complete math requirements, and adequate courses and professional development should be available for educators to learn strategies to better integrate STEM into their teaching practice.”

It’s never to early for children to develop their natural STEM instincts.