Thursday, December 13, 2012

5 Techniques for Helping Young Minds Develop Innate STEM Skills: Don't Assume Too Little or Too Much  

Early identification and development of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills in young children has been hampered by two divergent strategies. The first strategy, which underlies conventional practice in early childhood education, assumes that young children cannot engage in scientific thinking until critical periods of brain maturation have been attained (National Research Council 2007).

This approach presumes that children achieve readiness for science learning through unstructured maturational processes (i.e., their brains become old enough to understand science). The influence of rich educational experiences on a child’s cognitive development and the guidance provided by knowledgeable adults is not factored in. Because the native sophistication of young minds is not recognized, conventional childhood education misses the opportunity to purposefully encourage the cognitive abilities underlying scientific thinking.

The second strategy is to push academic STEM instruction down to the pre-K and K levels. Such attempts at improving rigor may produce children who can parrot STEM vocabulary and methods, but are less capable of applying their natural tendencies to explore and test hypotheses (Gopnik 2012). Too much rigor discourages playful exploration, discovery of anomalies, and searches for explanations. Additionally, too much emphasis on rigor at the expense of play places children in highly stressful environments that undermine development of character traits such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. These traits have recently been lauded as critical to academic and career success (Tough 2012).

A third strategy honors the innate scientific thinking capabilities of young children. Young children are capable of sophisticated scientific thinking, including testing hypotheses against data; making causal inferences; learning from statistics and informal experimentation; and learning by observing and listening to others (Gopnik 2012). Embracing and developing these capabilities enhances preparedness for learning, and develops key character traits.

Techniques for engaging young minds include (Feldman 2011):
  • Appealing to varied learning styles with movement, music, and visualization;
  • Asking questions to develop critical thinking skills;
  • Encouraging creativity with improvisation;
  • Using breathing and relaxation to foster self regulation; and
  • Developing a positive self concept through affirmation.
Coupled with rigorous exploration of natural phenomena in a playful setting, the techniques are likely to empower children to enjoy and appreciate science throughout life.


  1. Feldman, Enrique. 2011. Living Like a Child: Learn, Live, and Teach Creatively. St. Paul, Minnesota: Redleaf Press.
  2. Gopnik, Alison. 2012. "Scientific Thinking in Young Children: Theoretical Advances, Empirical Research, and Policy Implications." Science, no. 337 (6102):1623-1627.
  3. National Research Council. 2007. "Foundations for Science Learning in Young Children." In Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8, edited by Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber and Andrew W. Shouse. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  4. Tough, Paul. 2012. How Children Succeed. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

About the Author

Steven Moore, Ph.D., is CEO of Science Approach and principal investigator on its VoxelDiscovery 5-8 project.

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