By Jennifer Edelen
Early childhood STEM experiences can improve the diversity of students who demonstrate later-in-life involvement with STEM as a field. Engaging a broad range of learners with positive STEM experiences is essential to combating gaps in STEM achievement, an ongoing challenge that has been confirmed in studies, along race, socioeconomic status, and gender.
Consider, for example, the challenge preschoolers face in learning about the plant life cycle when they are only just beginning to understand the concept of living things at all. How can a teacher make such an abstract idea more concrete? Research has shown that children gain a deeper understanding of curriculum when they can actively engage multiple senses in their learning—an idea central to arts-integration strategies.
Wolf Trap teaching artists have met the above challenge by incorporating dance into a plant life cycle lesson to help children visualize each phase of the cycle with their bodies and then create a sequence of unique movements to represent the cycle itself. The lesson works this way: First the students become seeds, curling themselves into a small ball close to the ground. They slowly stand up, growing into a stem, and then extend and sway their arms as petals ad leaves blowing in the breeze. The dance sequence is repeated, not only to represent the continuous cycle of plant life, but also to strengthen the students’ understanding through practice. The integration of dance and movement helps make the concept of the life cycle concrete, an understanding which gives them the foundation to learn more about the natural world and biology in the future.
A four-year study by the American Institutes of Research (AIR) of Wolf Trap Institute’s model initiative, “Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts,” confirmed that arts-integrated techniques can boost learning in subjects other than the arts themselves. In the first year of the STEM initiative, preschool and kindergarten students gained 1.3 months of additional learning in math compared to their peers in the control group schools—the equivalent 26 extra days of learning. In the second year of the study, students gained 1.7 additional months, or an extra 34 days of learning math, even though not all students in the second year continued in classrooms with teachers participating in the program.
Additionally, teachers who participated in AIR’s study of Wolf Trap Institute’s model STEM program said the use of music, dance, and drama was also beneficial for all students, but in particular for students who were shy, who had never been to school, or who spoke another language.
These studies are encouraging and should be widely reviewed and considered when curriculum directors are developing lessons and other course work, particularly for pre-school students.
Jennifer Edelen is a Collaborative member and the Director of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts.
Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts is, a program of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts & the Institute for Child Success.
Buchter, J. Kucskar, M., Oh-Young, C., Weglarz-Ward, J., & Gelfer, J. (2017) Supporting STEM in early childhood education.
Buchter, Kucksar, Oh-Young, Welgarz-Ward, & Gelfer, 2017.
Song, M., Ludwig M., Marklein M.B., (2016). Arts Integration: A Promising Approach to Improving Early Learning, American Institutes for Research.