At a time when many high schools and even institutes of higher education are placing a stronger focus on STEM instruction, some preschools around the country are making it a priority to introduce these concepts much earlier in the educational process—before students begin elementary school. What’s driving this movement, and what best practices are emerging?
The Demand for STEM Competencies
In 2005, the National Innovation Initiative published “Innovate America,” which included “build the base of scientists and engineers” as one of its top recommendations. In 2007, the National Academies published its study “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which suggested offering 25,000 undergraduate scholarships to promote STEM. These scholarships would be available to U.S. citizens enrolled in physician science, life sciences, engineering, and math.
In response to this, President Barack Obama has been keenly focused on STEM education. A report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released in 2012 indicated that “the United States will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by about 34% annually over current rates.”
Despite these exhortations, though, there are some who claim there is more of a surplus than a shortage of STEM talent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics addressed these divergent claims in a 2015 Monthly Labor Review report. There remains a continued push for STEM education at all levels—including most recently in pre-K.
Leaders of a group called Seeds to STEM have attained a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Services that they will use to implement a pilot in September 2017. The four-year initiative will test their theory that earlier STEM introduction can help better groom students to be more focused on these subjects.
This instruction does not have to be complex, these researchers note—nor should it be. The study will introduce the problem-solving process through popular storybooks, play, and classroom authentic problems. They’re not the first to consider or support the concept of early STEM instruction either.
In a 2012 article in Teach Preschool, Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed., attempts to demystify and remove the presumed complexity from STEM instruction. She points to the work of Dr. Sherri Killins, who says: “What STEM does is give a label to what you are already doing … helping children to explore, observe, ask questions, predict, integrate their learning … it’s what we’ve always done in early childhood education.”
Dr. Lilian Katz adds that the focus needs to be on intellectual rather than academic learning. Intellectual learning occurs when children naturally interact with real things in their environment. From that perspective, pre-K seems like the perfect place to introduce children, through interaction, to all things STEM. There are ample ideas to do that. Educator Laura Kosky’s Pinterest board “STEM in Preschool” offers more than 1,000 examples, for instance.
A Strategic Focus
While some are dabbling with the introduction of STEM-related concepts in pre-K, the activities must be focused—and strategic. It’s not just about random play or casual interaction with apps, experiments or the latest in wearable tech. Pre-K teachers need more resources to create their strategic plans.
“What we’re not doing in government and private research is following up on what works and why. We’ve got to change that,” says Russell Shilling, executive director for STEM at the Department of Education. Shilling’s department has plans to release a 10-year vision for STEM learning.
To ensure a better focus on what works and why, 11 representatives from educational institutions around the United States have come together to discuss the promotion of active STEM learning in early education. They are participants in a six-month fellowship program through 100Kin10, a networked effort designed to recruit 100,000 STEM teachers into U.S. schools by 2021. The hope is that this program will bring together organizations to support each other in tackling the problem of insufficient STEM education in preschool.
Takeaway: Growing recognition of the value of more structured and strategic education at the pre-K level, and specifically more focus on STEM-related education, is generating interest and spurring funding and support of initiatives around the country. Educators are being encouraged to rethink commonly held beliefs that STEM education must be complex and dry. By engaging pre-K students in activities designed to develop STEM-related skills, in ways that leverage children’s innate curiosity and interest in interaction, the foundation may be laid for future careers in STEM fields.
1. “Is There a STEM Crisis or a STEM Surplus?” The Wall Street Journal. August 12, 2016.
2. “National Innovation Initiative Summit and Report” Council on Competitiveness. 2005.
3. “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” The National Academies Press. 2007.
4. “STEM Crisis or STEM Surplus? Yes and Yes” Monthly Labor Review. May 2015.
5. “How Early Can We Introduce STEM Education?” eSchool News. August 9, 2016.
6. “What Does STEM Look Like in Preschool and What is STEM Anyway?” Teach Preschool. June 6, 2012.
7. “STEM in Preschool” Pinterest. N.d.
8. “STEM Should Be Part of Every Pre-K Program” U.S. News & World Report. May 19, 2016.