A few years ago SEEC was approached to write a journal article about what STEM learning looks like at our school. Several educators and administrators collaborated to write about STEM learning examples from our classrooms, such as learning about the planets, and the Earth’s relationship with the sun and moon. The publication responded by questioning whether SEEC’s approach to STEM was developmentally appropriate. They felt that children were not capable of understanding these complex concepts. This experience prompted us to reflect on how we approach STEM learning in our classrooms. Ultimately, after careful consideration, we stood by our approach and belief in children capabilities.
While many people think about colors, seasons, letters, and numbers as typical preschool topics, SEEC explores concepts beyond that. We believe that children are capable of understanding complex topics, if taught in a developmentally appropriate and engaging ways, and if topics are scaffolded or addressed one layer at a time. Children often inquire about concepts that are complex and do not have easy answers. By delving into these topics, the children are much more invested in the learning as they are intrinsically motivated.
One way we address complex STEM topics with young children is through the use of art as a starting point. Moreover, visual literacy and observational skills related to STEM are very much interconnected.
For example, to begin a lesson exploring wind, this pre-k 4 class observed The Girl I Left Behind Me by Eastman Johnson at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The children noticed a girl, possibly a teenager (there was a debate about her age), her hair blowing in the wind, a storm brewing, and bumpy ground. This careful looking prompted questions from the children such as, “Is she going to get caught in a storm?” and “I wonder what is that brown thing she’s holding?” The act of looking at the artwork built the children’s skills in observation, curiosity, focus, critical thinking, prediction based on evidence, listening to other perspectives, and communication; all skills used in STEM learning. After our observation session the children were eager to share their personal experiences with wind and curious to learn more about wind. We read a book to find out why wind occurs. Then we used tools, such as an anemometer and the Beaufort scale, and experimentation to understand varying wind strengths.
Research also supports that careful looking at artwork helps to develop STEM skills. For example, one study found that medical students became more effective in diagnosing their patients after they had practiced observation and communicating about artwork at a museum. They began to notice details that they were missing before and were more open to hearing other perspectives from fellow medical professionals and the patients themselves.
While we hope children will understand the content we share, our main goal is for the children to leave our school with the foundational skills to engage in STEM experiences in years to come. We feel that by connecting art and STEM, they have more opportunities to engage in STEM content and practice STEM skills.
Want to learn more about how to create engaging STEM lessons via art? Join us next Thursday, April 18th from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For more information, click here.