One of my most popular workshops recently is one simply titled “STEM in Early Childhood Education.” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is a hot buzzword right now, and educators are pressured to show how they are teaching it and using it in their classrooms.
For people who work with babies, toddlers, twos and preschoolers this can feel pretty daunting. Sure, a baking soda/vinegar volcano has a “wow” factor, but does it go beyond that? Do they REALLY get the concept of chemical reactions?
I try to bring STEM back to the basics and show educators how it really is woven into the whole day, it is just up to you to tease it out and highlight that for your kids. In the middle of the session, I’ll stop and take out a big piece of chart paper. Across the top I write “STEM JOBS” and ask them to start lobbing out ideas. We quickly run through doctor, vet, accountant, architect and with each one I say “That’s great, what else?”
As I keep pushing the ideas get more creative…plumber, cashier, gardener. With a little hesitation someone asked about theater and we ran through lighting design, set creator and more. They start building confidence and start throwing out jobs from all corners of the economy.
At some point I see someone pause, look at the list and get a thoughtful look on their face. “Um, well, what it seems to me is that almost every job has STEM in it.” Yes! You are right! In fact, the challenge is to find a profession that does not use some component of STEM instead of the other way around.
Looking at things this way turns on its head the idea that STEM jobs only exist in elite fields, using laboratories or space age technology. Now, it is approachable to look at how kids can play and explore in the classroom using this as a starting point. Construction tools with rulers and levels in the block area become math investigations, add PVC pipes to the water table and plumbers create engineering marvels. Botanists and animal enthusiasts thrive in outdoor play areas and artists use their knowledge of the human form, and what they need for structural integrity, to sculpt out of playdough.
Using STEM jobs as a way to structure classroom exploration lets you play to your strengths, and the interests of the children, while still bringing in new elements. It is also easier to see how STEM can move beyond the designated “science area” and into the rest of the classroom. It keeps things focused on building foundations of STEM, instead of worrying about how fancy it looks.
Looking at STEM jobs also encourages educators to look at their community resources. Many families have a parent or caregiver in a STEM job and they can add expertise to your explorations, and also give the children a sense of pride in what their family does.
Many early childhood educators will say they don’t “get” science or that they aren’t “good at it.” In truth, they are doing it throughout the day, every day. It sometimes just takes looking at it from a new angle for them to see that and get re-inspired.