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Why Is STEM Important in Early Childhood Education? Understanding Child Development and Learning

July 9, 2020

The rise of the digital age has made science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education more critical than ever. Early STEM education can promote ongoing academic success, and children who learn STEM concepts throughout their education are better prepared to meet increasingly technology-focused professional requirements.

Though there is little disagreement about the importance of STEM education among educators and lawmakers, US schools continue to face challenges related to providing adequate STEM training, particularly to very young students, and many misconceptions about teaching STEM persist.

Misconceptions About STEM Education

STEM education is not limited to building science and math knowledge. At its core, STEM concepts help children develop new ways of thinking, encouraging curiosity and analysis. Establishing these at an early age (infancy through third grade), when young minds are most malleable, establishes lifelong thinking skills. To understand the benefits of STEM education, it helps to dispel some of the myths surrounding it:

Myth: STEM Emphasis Comes at the Expense of Non-STEM Subjects

In fact, STEM is inextricably linked to other fields of study, and STEM training can enhance learning in other disciplines. For example, research has shown a link exists between science instruction and improvement in literacy, language learning, and executive functioning.

Myth: STEM Equals More Computers in the Classroom

Technology is a component of STEM, and students who engage with STEM subjects gain skills that better prepare them for technology-focused roles; but STEM education is not dependent on digital technology, particularly when teaching young children. Block play, gardening, and puzzles are examples of STEM education, as are visits to museums. It can be done anytime with minimal resources. In many classrooms, a STEM curriculum and play are already present, they just need to be emphasized.

Myth: STEM Training Only Happens in the Classroom

Parents who are aware of the benefits of a STEM curriculum are more likely to be supportive of STEM education and encourage activities in the home that develop STEM concepts. Tools available to parents include mobile apps designed to introduce children to STEM and literacy concepts at an early age. Through the Ready to Learn Initiative, a US Department of Education–funded program, PBS has developed games and apps to help children ages two to eight build literacy and science skills.

Myth: STEM Curriculums Are Only for Certain Students

STEM initiatives still face challenges from outmoded ideas held by some policymakers, parents, and teachers concerning gender and race as they relate to aptitude for subjects such as mathematics. In addition, the belief that STEM is for older students has contributed to funding being concentrated in higher grade levels.


Although the importance of STEM education is widely accepted, the growing emphasis on STEM curriculum has generated debate. Concerns that STEM does not adequately encourage creativity and innovation has led some educators to push for a broader approach. Embracing many of the concepts championed by STEM advocates — experiential learning, inquiry, problem solving, process-based learning — STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) proponents argue that arts education is just as necessary as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to fully educate students and prepare them for their professional lives.

While there are disagreements over the most effective way to emphasize and integrate individual subjects and concepts, educators on both sides of the STEM vs. STEAM debate share a common goal: moving away from rote memorization and siloed subjects towards a more holistic, project-based curriculum that sparks students’ imagination and develops their real-world skills.

Lifelong Benefits of Early STEM Education

Measuring the impact of a STEM curriculum on early development is difficult, but STEM education has been shown to be a predictor of future academic achievement. For example, a study by researchers at the University of California Irvine found that early math skills were the most consistently predictive measure of future academic success among kindergarten to fifth grade students.

The benefits of STEM education are not limited to a student’s academic career, however. Efforts in the US to improve STEM education have largely been driven by demand from the private sector, where employers have complained about a lack of qualified candidates for technology-focused jobs. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 5 percent growth in non-STEM occupations between 2018 and 2028, while the number of STEM-related jobs will grow almost 9 percent, expanding by 10.6 million positions.

Barriers to Better Early STEM Programs

Efforts to improve STEM education in US schools face challenges inside and outside of the classroom. A real or perceived lack of STEM resources along with inadequate training in children’s developmental learning progressions as they relate to STEM can leave teachers feeling anxious or uncertain about their role. STEM programs are less likely to be successful if they lack clear expectations, methods for measuring progress, or cooperation across grade levels.

Linking preschool programs to kindergarten through 12th grade curriculums is a particular challenge in early childhood education. A lack of alignment between preschool and first grade STEM curriculums results in some children being left behind while others repeat material during a crucial period of learning development. Adequate training of preschool educators in teaching STEM concepts is critical, but another discrepancy between preschool institutions and kindergarten through 12th grade schools remains a barrier: compensation. Consider the median annual pay for US teachers as reported by the BLS:

  • High school teachers: $60,320
  • Kindergarten and elementary school teachers: $57,980
  • Preschool teachers: $29,780

Such a pay gap has made attracting and retaining highly trained teachers a perennial challenge in preschool education.

Steps Forward

The responsibility to improve STEM fluency does not lie solely with teachers. Administrators and other educators in leadership positions can advocate for STEM resources in the classroom and guide public policy. Steps that policymakers can take to address the STEM challenge include funding new STEM programs, grants, and advisory councils that promote STEM curriculums. Lawmakers in some states have also tried to address problems facing teachers, providing professional development, salary increases, and incentives for specializing in STEM fields. However, STEM education program funding remains concentrated in kindergarten through 12th grade programs, and particularly in middle schools and high schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Expanding STEM Expertise

Teaching STEM is not as simple as having knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics concepts. Educators must understand how to create lessons that integrate underlying STEM concepts into activities appropriate and effective for specific age groups and development levels, a particular challenge when addressing the needs of very young learners.

Educators interested in STEM preparation, staff development, and continuing education can hone their skills through a program such as American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching program, which focuses on the STEM skills necessary for tomorrow’s most exciting careers. The school’s online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership can also be beneficial to educators looking to shape and promote STEM-related policy. Discover other benefits of the programs by requesting information about American University’s MAT degree and MEd in Education Policy and Leadership degree.