By: Allison Master, PhD
Every young child approaches the world with a sense of curiosity and wonder. One of our jobs as educators and parents is to support children’s natural instincts to learn. It is especially important to support learning in science, technology, engineering, and math— STEM. Early STEM skills lay the foundation for later success in school. For example, early math skills are the strongest predictor of later school achievement. To support children’s learning, we have to make sure that STEM starts early.
Learning STEM is like learning a language: children need to be immersed in STEM learning opportunities to become fluent. STEM helps children learn how to analyze information and solve problems. These are skills that are useful for all of us throughout our lives. Yet less than 5 percent of classroom time in preschool involves STEM activities!
One way to ensure that children get the most out of STEM opportunities is to make each activity as engaging as possible. Our research has looked for ways to help increase children’s motivation for STEM tasks. One method? Make STEM social.
In our study, we had 4-year-olds work on two STEM tasks, a math task and a puzzle task. The children in the study participated by themselves in both of the exercises. But for one task, we told the children they were part of a group. For example, we said, “You’re in the green group, and the green group plays math games.” They wore green T-shirts and sat at a green table. For the other task, we told children that they were working alone.
We found that when the STEM task was social, children were more motivated. When children thought they were part of a group working on the task, they persisted longer at it. They were also more confident in their abilities and thought the STEM learning was more fun. Even though the groups weren’t real, feeling connected to others motivated children more.
Motivation can boost learning. When children are interested and feel successful in the classroom, learning follows.
Our society has a lot of common misperceptions about STEM. We often see it as hard, solitary, and more “for boys” than “for girls.” Children pick up on these beliefs at an early age, often based on subtle cues from the adults around them. By elementary school, girls are less interested in STEM than boys. We can help to change these beliefs by making STEM social. This may also help children (especially girls) stay confident and comfortable in STEM domains.
What can teachers do to help engage their students in STEM? Here are a couple of ideas about how teachers and parents can use these findings to talk about STEM.
Use social language when you talk about STEM: “Let’s figure this puzzle out together,” “Here’s a tool we can try as a group,” “What can you build with your partner?,” “What will happen if we do this?”
Create classroom-wide groups to make sure everyone feels included. “Our whole class does science together,” “Time for us to work on our math problems.”
For young children, STEM is all around. We want children to discover all the fun possibilities that STEM has to offer. Then they can build their interest in STEM over time. To help make that happen, we need to remember that STEM starts early.
Dr. Allison Master is a researcher at the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington.