The Early Childhood STEM Classroom

Hi All,

First off I want to Thank Amy for getting us going on this challenge and for all the work she put in coordinating and organizing this fabulous event! Doing a straight up post about  classroom curriculum is a refreshing departure for me, so here goes!

The Early Childhood STEM Classroom

When I first started teaching Kindergarten, the “master teacher” had our science curriculum all worked out. We measured the apple, counted the seeds, decided which kind of apple we “liked best” in a taste test and graphed it in the packet. Unit 1, done. Next up, pumpkins. We hugged it, measured it, scooped it and counted the seeds again. Unit 2, check. By January, for science, the kids had filled out two fill-in-the-blank packets, ate some apples and hugged a pumpkin.

To me, this wasn’t science. I knew from my friendships with actual, practicing scientists that what they did on a daily basis was basically fail. Everyday. Over and over again. Real science isn’t pat like a worksheet packet, and it isn’t messy like the insides of a pumpkin. In the real world of science, the packets are messy and the inside of the pumpkin is neat. 😀 I don’t necessarily mean this literally, versus the idea that there’s a passionate process of inquiry driving the science versus “Let’s finish this series of questions. Be neat in your work.”

I wanted to revamp the curriculum to be a more authentic reflection of what the world of science was actually like. Did scientists record their information? Yes! Maybe they even hugged some pumpkins, but they did something BEFORE all of that. They started with a question. And no, not a question like “Hmm, which apple do I prefer to eat in this taste test?” but questions like “How do apples grow?” or “Do they have pumpkins in Egypt?” Random questions. Illogical questions, questions that made sense to them versus a teacher telling them which questions. 

“Oh, no crazy teacher, they need to be taught which questions are the right kinds to ask before they can formulate a question.” I can hear the backlash now. I remember a four year old asking me the question, “Where does the wind come from?” We went around and asked all the other children. Their answers ranged from “God, duh” to “the trees”. Not only can kids wonder, they are constantly formulating answers to make sense of their world.

So the trick was pulling all of that raw questioning power and curiosity together to form some semblance of a “science class”. What flipped the switch for me, however, was when I started thinking of science as more deeply integrated with technology, engineering (block building and manipulatives) and mathematics.

I suddenly realized it wasn’t the content that mattered at all, it was the habit-of-mind that mattered (both mine and theirs!) My teaching had NOTHING to do with content, but with further developing the student’s practice of inquiry, exploration, creation and documentation.


Coincidentally, that summer, I had the chance to attend Gary Stager’s conference Constructing Modern Knowledge where we had the opportunity to visit the “Lifelong Kindergarten” group at the MIT Media Lab. Here are a few pictures of what I saw there:





I came back from the summer super excited to pull together an Early Childhood STEM Center. First thing I did was the schedule. I previously had four times for “Independent Choice” or as it’s more commonly called, Play times. I took two of those times and changed them to “STEM” and kept the other two as play times. No! I didn’t take away any play! The two are virtually indistinguishable except for which centers are “open” and which are “closed”. (blocks closed on two days, housekeeping open on two days, etc) This just brings a sharper focus to the play and centers the work.

The next thing was the room design. I pulled in all of the blocks and manipulatives and put them in a really nice large space that would hopefully encourage more mixed use, carved out a math and music center with a keyboard and instruments, and made sure the craft center had plenty of tape, staples, hole punchers and was inviting with a wide variety of materials.

Then the children came! 😀

Inquiry, exploration, creation and documentation:

Inquiry: We start with “What IS science?” and continue this dialogue throughout the year. Student: “Are unicorns real, Ms Echternacht? Teacher: Now you are thinking like a science girl!”. My whole group instruction is minimal.

Exploration: We go off and play in the open centers of the room. The trick here is keeping things fresh and knowing when something “is hot” and adding the right materials at the right time.

Creation: I go around and talk with groups during their play “What are you trying to make?”   “Who made this ____?” “Tell me what’s not working here?” I try to formulate my questions to get them to “dig deeper” into the play or model “I see Josie has this idea but it doesn’t seem to be working. What isn’t working? Maybe you two can work together to come up with another plan?”

The documentation: I will be the first to say it’s not easy to keep the authentic questions coming, document the work and be really engaged and excited about what’s happening! The students have responsibility to document their work by drawing, labeling and making 1,2,3, step directions.

It takes me the full first half of the year to get these habits-of-mind in place and I am just beginning much of the work, but I do see a change in how they play, in what they ask and in the fact that their authentic work is being taken seriously. Did you make a full suit of clothes out of construction paper for a play? That’s great! Wow! Can you write it down for me? I wish I could share all of the videos with everyone to show you what this all looks like when it comes together at the end of the year!

By the end of the year, the children presented their work in “stations”. They worked with a partner and told (both real life and skype) visitors about magnets, bones, capacity, light, building structures, music and movement patterns and tricks, as well as shared all of their inventions. It is remarkable to see what happens when I keep the apples on my desk and have them making their own packets.


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