STEM in the ECE Classroom

At SEEC we believe that young children are capable of understanding complex STEM concepts when taught in engaging and developmentally appropriate ways. A recent study from The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America, found that while teachers are also excited and capable of teaching STEM skills, they need more knowledge, support, and training to be effective. A policy report from The Early Childhood STEM Working Group states that many educators have STEM anxiety, which can lead to avoidance of STEM teaching, with negative STEM mindsets being unintentionally transferred to students.

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Why do early childhood educators have this feeling of inability and uneasiness surrounding STEM? Research illuminates one possible reason: many adults in the United States do not feel that they are knowledgeable enough in STEM subjects. Reflecting from our own experiences lesson planning, we also recognize feeling uncomfortable when the children are curious about a STEM concept we know nothing, or little about. However, at SEEC, we do not believe you have to be an expert in STEM to explore it with the children. After all, early childhood educators are experts in so many areas already: child development, social emotional skills, collaborating with caregivers about behavior challenges, first aid, documenting learning…and the list goes on.

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At SEEC we believe in lifelong learning, so when we’re confronted with children’s enthusiasm surrounding a topic we’re unfamiliar with, we see it as an exciting opportunity to seek out new knowledge and model learning for children. To prepare for a new STEM subject we have several tools and strategies:

  • Community: We talk to colleagues, families, and community members who have an knowledge in the area. This can be a great and authentic way to make home-school connections, or relationships with community members.
  • Online research: While we research on our own, we also involve the children in this process to build technology competence, as well as inquiry and critical thinking skills. With the younger ages, we might use our class iPads to look up the topic and narrate what we’re seeing with the infants and toddlers while showing them what we’ve found.
  • Libraries: Often times our teachers will take their class to the library to pick out books related to their topic. If they can’t get to the library with their class, they will look at the library online catalog and choose books together.
  • Museums: We’re fortunate to be located on the Smithsonian campus, so we utilize the museums to seek out answers to our burning questions. If you’re not located near a museum, we suggest using Smithsonian’s Learning Lab to visit the museum digitally.

A group of four children look at an artwork with a museum educator at the National Museum for Women in the Arts.

Apart from our preparation techniques, we also utilize art and inquiry as a strategy for incorporating STEM into everyday lessons without much prior prep time. We often use artwork related to the STEM topic to practice inquiry and critical thinking. The educator does not necessarily have to know much about the subject matter, but can participate in the question asking and careful looking. This will provide questions that the class would like to research further and can focus your exploration. It’s helpful for the educator leading the group to know where to start with a topic, especially if the topic feels overwhelming.

To support educators outside our school, we share STEAM lessons we have created through our blogs, such as lessons on blood, wrecking balls, butterfly wings, seed dispersal, and more. We also offer Educator Workshops to share our practices, and how to use artwork as a powerful vehicle to develop STEM skills.


Want to learn more? Join us for our educator workshop Full STEAM Ahead on Thursday, February 20th from 4 PM to 7 PM at the National Museum of Natural History.