Friday, January 11, 2013

The Early Childhood STEM Classroom

Today's post comes to us from Heidi Echternacht @hechternacht a Kindergarten teacher in Princeton, NJ

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! It’s been amazing seeing all of the talented writers and teachers in the field of Early Childhood! 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 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. :D 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 and mathematics.

I suddenly realized it wasn't the content that mattered, 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 Young Child's practice of inquiry, exploration, creation and documentation. 

Coincidentally, that summer, I had the chance to attend Gary Stager's "Constructing Modern Knowledge" event where we had the opportunity to visit the "Lifelong Kindergarten" 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 called in some circles, “play”. I took two of those times and changed them to "STEM" and kept the other two as play time. 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! :D

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, though I do introduce new ideas and questions to the whole group on a regular basis throughout the day.

Exploration: We go off and play in the open centers of the room. The goal here is to “play hard.” The trick is keeping things fresh, knowing "what’s hot" as far as their topics of interest go, adding a well placed comment or adding the right materials at the right time. There is a ton of teacher skill that goes into developing this part of the process. Room design, knowing your students, having experience and confidence with materials all play a significant role.

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?", “What part are you getting frustrated with?”, “What’s your plan to make it (do x)?” 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?" There are also challenges within the play, “Ah! I see you’ve made it do x and y, I am wondering if you can make it do z?

Documentation: I will be the first to say it's not easy to keep the authentic questions coming, document the work and be genuinely engaged and excited about what's happening! The students have responsibility to document their work by drawing, labeling and creating 1,2,3, step directions. Click here to see the categories of our Early Childhood STEM blog posts.

It takes me the full first half of the year to get these habits-of-mind in place. The second part of the year, I add in “Lab Books” (portfolios of their STEM documentations). This method all takes some time, but in the end, I get three times the span of content and four times the interest in the STEM subject areas. I see a change in how they play, in what they ask and in their manner and approach based on the fact that their authentic work is being taken seriously.

By the end of the year, the children presented their work in "shops"or "stations". They worked with a partner and told- in one day! (both real life and skype) visitors about magnets, bones, capacity, light, building structures, music and movement patterns and tricks, as well as shared their inventions and instructional videos. 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!

It is remarkable to see what happens when I keep the apples and pumpkins on my desk and have them making their own packets telling of their passionate, messy and authentic pursuits.

Heidi says: Humbled and honored to have my bio right here on the Kinderchat blog. Even more humbled and honoured to have been working with Amy going on these three years to make something as wonderful as the Kinderchat. Much love to all those out there who inspire me everyday. 


  1. Heidi, I love this post. One thing that sticks with me from my experience as a teacher and the conversations I've had with teachers is if you want your students to be mathematicians you need to treat them as mathematician. If you want them to be scientist you need to treat them as scientist and so on and so on. Just those simple changes invoked huge changes in my students, and their learning. I agree that if we really want our students to be proficient in an area, they have to do genuine things associated with that. Wonder and curiosity are HUGE! Keep doing what you are doing. If I had a little person in my life I would love for them to be learning with you. Thanks for sharing Heidi, and another thank you to Amy for organizing this month of blogging.

  2. Heidi, thank you so much for speaking to this topic. As the mother of a child studying engineering in college, who has always had that type if bent, I have wished more schools offered STEM subjects in the younger grades. A few years back we were able to do more with our science curriculum, but with the big push toward literacy in our area, too many of us have pulled back. Thank you for your inspiration!

  3. Habit-of-mind. I love that way of defining it. Yes. I want my students to ask why .... what if... how .... And then get busy, get dirty (if necessary) and see what answers they can find. THanks for this post.

  4. Heidi, your posting got me thinking about how I can take our explorations around science even further with my preschoolers.
    Would like to know if others within your school and district have also changed how they approach science within their classroom with the example you provide them?

  5. Wonderful post Heidi. Young children are naturally curious and are eager to interact with their ideas. Love what you have available to your young scientists.

  6. Thanks for your wonderful comments everyone! This is Heidi here! CountryFunMaine - interesting question! :D I am from a very small school and while my work was singled out and commended and highlighted as exemplary by an independent (K-12) curricular reviewer, my school has not asked me to share my work.

    This is why Kinderchat. It is for all of the incredible, passionate and talented teachers out there who have no one to share their work with.
    Much Love to you all,

  7. Hi Heidi,
    Your post has given my partner and I more confidence to start a STEM based preschool. I would like to have some inputs from you in terms of how to create this curriculum for preschooler 3-5 yrs old...

    1. Just seeing your comment now Su- sorry I missed this q for so long! You can email me at if you'd still like to talk in more detail!