Want STEM Success? Start Early

STEM elementary school

4 benefits to beginning a STEM program in kindergarten.

 by Heather K. Harkins, Ph.D.

At Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy, we believe hands-on inquiry helps motivate students in all subject areas as they gain confidence and develop a personal understanding of the world around them. The key is to start early—and engage in this type of learning consistently—rather than wait for middle or high school.

Here are four outcomes you can expect when students begin inquiry-based, technology-enabled STEM learning early and stick with it.

1. No More Intimidation Factor

When we introduce kids to scientific inquiry early with age-appropriate content and simple contexts, they feel much more confident about their role as scientists later, when the content and context become more sophisticated. Inquiry-based learning in STEM aligns with the innate drive of early learners to use their senses as they explore, discover, and experience the world. Technology can be an educational tool used to stoke that enthusiasm. So, while many educators wait until middle or high school to introduce scientific tools and instruments, we start in kindergarten. Using technology for data collection gives students the opportunity to think and act like real scientists, which is not only motivating but fun.

From kindergarten through grade 8, we use a variety of educational technologies, such as sensors from PASCO Scientific, along with a software program called SPARKvue. Students use these tools for real-time quantitative measurement and analysis. In kindergarten, we ask students to measure temperature using a general science sensor. This helps them become familiar with this type of technology and the idea of visually monitoring specific parameters in their environment. When they circle back to weather again in the third grade, we can add on variables to measure, such as pressure and humidity. Then, in the sixth grade, they use a weather/anemometer sensor to measure wind speed and wind chill.

2. Great Muscle Memory Sticks

By integrating inquiry-based science instruction with tools for collecting, analyzing, and visualizing data, we’re helping students deepen their understanding of STEM concepts and practices. Further, with these hands-on learning experiences, students are retaining the information to a greater degree.

While kinesthetic learning is sometimes marginalized in the classroom, students need that physical engagement to develop “muscle memory” in their brains. Research shows that the persistence of learning over time is greater when students go through hands-on, minds-on, inquiry-based activities.

This is important when we think about the vertical articulation and spiraling of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). When students use tools to physically engage in activities and collaborate with their peers, they’re learning science by doing science. Such tools also allow teachers to effectively address core science ideas and crosscutting concepts, while engaging students in real-life scientific and engineering practices.

3. Expanded Career Aspirations

It’s no secret that as students progress through school, many lose interest in STEM. According to a 2011 U.S. News & World Report article, “Research documents that by the time students reach fourth grade, a third of boys and girls have lost an interest in science. By eighth grade, almost 50 percent have lost interest or deemed it irrelevant to their education or future plans.”

Research also shows that children start thinking about career aspirations and ideas early. So, from kindergarten through grade 8, we highlight STEM careers in every unit of every STEM course. This opens students’ eyes to possibilities they may have never considered. Further, because students already have positive STEM experiences using some of the same tools that real-life scientists and engineers use, it makes these careers feel more realistic and attainable.

4. Raising Achievement in All Areas

Since our school opened its doors to students in fall 2013, we’ve seen student growth in science, as well as mathematics and English language arts. For example, on the state science test, the percentage of fifth graders performing at or above the “Goal Level” (Level 4) increased by more than 20 percentage points from 2015 to 2016. That means less than half our students reached this level in 2015, but fully two of every three hit this mark in 2016.

We believe that taking an integrated, STEM-focused approach will raise achievement in all areas, and we’re encouraged by our results. Providing students with inquiry-based, hands-on STEM learning allows them to go deeper with the content than they ever could with a textbook or worksheet. It’s exciting to think about where our kindergartners will be by the time they reach high school. What will they do in the ninth grade with nine years of STEM under their belts? What will they do beyond that? The possibilities are greater based on their K–8 experiences.

Heather K. Harkins, Ph.D., is the STEM Coordinator for the Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy in Windham Public Schools. Barrows STEM Academy is the first K-8 STEM magnet school in northeastern Connecticut.