Young children are born scientists. They are naturally curious about the world around them—eager to explore, invent and solve problems. They are enthusiastic investigators, and as they explore their world, they are beginning to develop STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) knowledge and skills.
Unfortunately, by the time they reach fourth grade, many children are lacking key STEM knowledge and skills.1 Hispanic children are particularly at risk for not developing strong STEM skills and aspirations. In 2015, only 12% of Nevada Hispanic fourth-graders rated at or above proficiency in both math and science, which may help explain why Hispanics are underrepresented in STEM professions.
Fortunately, early exposure to STEM, whether at home or in school, supports children’s overall academic growth, develops early critical thinking and reasoning skills, and enhances later interest in STEM studies and careers.3 Providing opportunities for young children can help them gain basic STEM skills in:
Equally important, involving parents encourages them to take an active role in creating a positive and safe environment at home for exploration and discovery.4,5 By creating a stimulating STEM-rich environment at home, young children will be better prepared as they enter and progress through school.
Funded by a NIFA Children, Youth and Families at Risk grant, Let’s Discover STEM/Descubramos STEM was designed to provide enriching STEM experiences for young Hispanic children (3-6 years old) who likely would not have such experience, and to teach parents how to nurture children’s curiosity by encouraging and supporting their children’s early STEM learning.
Young children learn best when doing—touching, moving, testing, playing. Therefore, central to Let’s Discover STEM/Descubramos STEM were workshops where children and parents were actively engaged in hands-on, developmentally appropriate activities designed to enhance STEM-related interest, knowledge and skills.
Targeting families in at-risk neighborhoods in Las Vegas and Reno/Sparks, the seven-week workshop series focused on beginning STEM, as well as parents’ skills and confidence in boosting children’s early STEM learning. The majority of these children were not in formal early childhood programs. During the weekly lessons, families:
Between 2017 and 2022, we taught 41 in-person and 13 virtual workshop series (378 individual parent-child workshops) at 36 community sites. We reached 1,055 families, 74% of which were Hispanic/Latino. Families were engaged in an average of 12 hours of directed STEM learning for a total of 12,660 hours across all families over the five-year period.
Parents responded to a variety of evaluation forms before, during and after the workshops. Assessment of impacts addressed four goals.
A main goal of the program was to increase the opportunity for children to engage in enriching STEM activities. During the workshops, children participated in as many as 28 STEM-enriching activities. Also, each week we sent home ideas and activities for doing additional STEM activities. Over the course of the program, families did an average of 19 of the 24 suggested take-home activities. Nearly 87% of parents reported spending at least 30 minutes or more per week doing those activities at home, with 45% reporting spending one or more hours a week doing the activities. Through both in-class and at-home activities, children engaged in up to 52 STEM activities that otherwise would not have been done with these targeted children. In essence, through participating in the program, children and parents were engaged in enriching fundamental STEM activities that build STEM readiness and success.
A second goal of the program was to improve children’s knowledge and interest in STEM activities. At the end of the series, parents reported that their children increased their knowledge about STEM and their interest in doing STEM-related activities. Parents also reported that the program increased their own knowledge of STEM and their interest in doing STEM-related activities with their children. In other words, both children and parents increased their knowledge and interest in STEM because of the program.
Foundational STEM skills for young children include abilities such as counting 1-20; recognizing shapes; comparing objects to determine more or less; measuring length, size and weight; and building towers and bridges. Learning these skills early can set children up for success in STEM-related subjects in school. At the end of the series, parents rated their child’s ability on 16 fundamental STEM skills. According to parents, children made significant gains on all of the emerging STEM skills focused on in the classes. In other words, parents saw an increase in their children’s emerging STEM skills across the program.
An additional focus of the project was to enhance parents’ attitudes and confidence in their ability to help their children develop fundamental STEM skills. Children gain positive attitudes toward STEM when their parents have supportive beliefs about the importance of early STEM development and their role in helping that development. By the end of the program, parents reported being significantly more confident they could help their children gain STEM skills, that their children could learn from them, that they could help their children succeed in school, and that they were prepared to help their children learn. Parents also felt that the program helped strengthen their relationships with their children.
The program began with in-person workshops, but had to pivot to virtual workshops during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no significant differences in children’s STEM readiness skills, or in reported gains in children’s and parents’ knowledge and interest in STEM, between in-person and virtual sessions. However, we did find that the virtual sessions had more consistent attendance and that families were more likely to do the take-home activities than those who attended the in-person sessions. Additionally, in-person parents reported more confidence in being able to help their children develop STEM skills.
Parents also commented on what they liked best about the program. Feedback centered on:
Several steps were taken to ensure sustainability and expansion of Let’s Discover STEM/Descubramos STEM. First, we created and published a program curriculum and registered it in the National Registry of Cooperative Extension Programs and Assets depository. Also, many of our community partners are able to continue supporting the workshops with their families, and we are taking steps to more closely integrate the program into our other 4-H programming. Finally, we continue to explore a train-the-trainer component to further expand the program throughout the state.
Weigel, D., Kim, Y., and Evans, B., 2022, Let's Discover STEM: Five-Year Report 2017-2022 Nevada Sustainable Communities Project, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, IP-22-01
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