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What is inquiry-based STEM education and why is it important?

Inquiry-based STEM education in the early years is a collaborative process, which encourages children to raise questions and explore their interests.

What comes to mind when you think of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)? School? Equations? Sleepless nights before a maths test? Or do you think of exciting science lessons that unlocked the wonders of the world and that encouraged endless questioning?

The way we perceive STEM depends on our experiences growing up. Did your teachers encourage you to ask questions and find answers? Did your parents take you to a pond to observe tadpoles or to test the water levels after a drought? Depending on your own experiences with STEM, you might be excited or anxious about these subjects. You might wonder if it is necessary to start STEM learning in preschool. After all, children are supposed to have fun, right?

I agree, childhood should be the time for play, discovery and wonder! The great news is that hands-on STEM education allows children to enter a world full of excitement and fun, endless things to wonder about and to investigate. Children want to find out more about the world and as a result most of their questions are related to STEM subjects. In early childhood, children’s natural inquisitiveness drives their eagerness to learn.

Inquiry-based STEM education in the early years is a collaborative process, which encourages children to raise questions and explore their interests. In a playful way, children are familiarised with scientific processes and learn to think scientifically. Early STEM education does not teach facts but kindles children’s inquisitive minds.

In progressive early STEM education, the adult takes the role of the facilitator, empowering children to shape their own learning, and establishing a collaborative environment. The adult observes children’s individual interests, involves them in decision-making and provides prompts to stimulate their thought processes.

What does early STEM education look like in real life?

Four-year old Sam watches you put ice cubes in a glass of water on a hot day. She sees the ice cubes melt in the water and is fascinated by the process. She asks you if she could add more ice cubes to the glass.

This is a great opportunity for you to kindle her interest by saying something like ‘I wonder how long it would take for all this ice to melt.’ Or you could say ‘I would love to find out how we could prevent the ice cubes from melting so fast.’ This could be a starting point for research or provoke further questions. Sam might begin her own investigations by taking the glass with ice cubes outside to melt them in the sun.

STEM learning does not require expert knowledge, nor do you need a recipe book or a science kit. Listen to your children’s questions and let your own curiosity and inquisitiveness do the rest.

Children playing with watering can and dirt pit at child care

Why is STEM inquiry so valuable?  

In our rapidly changing world, STEM skills have become increasingly important. According to a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2017 ‘the development and deployment of technology could create up to 50 million jobs globally by 2030’. The third industrial revolution led to drastic changes in the way we live, work and learn and as the fourth industrial revolution begins we don’t even know what new occupations will look like.

Futurists across the world agree that we can only be sure about one thing: The workforce of the future will require skills and abilities that ‘are often not part of the formal curriculum in traditional school programs’. Social and emotional sensing and reasoning, flexibility, creativity, collaborative problem-solving, grit and resilience will be increasingly important.

Hands-on inquiry-based STEM education lays the foundation for social and emotional intelligence, raises children’s confidence, and fosters their abilities to plan and reflect.

How to include STEM inquiry in your family life?

There are so many opportunities for discovery in everyday situations. Your children’s questions provide the starting point for investigation every single day.

Next time your child asks you ‘Where did the ice cube go?’ you could answer with ‘Great question, let’s find out together!’.

Reference: McKinsey Global Institute. (2017). Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation

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(This article has been contributed to by Little Scientists Australia. Little Scientists offers Professional Development in STEM for Early Childhood Educators.)

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