STEM in Children’s Museums

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The following post appears in the latest issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal.

By Charlie Trautmann, PhD, and Janna Doherty

The most recent issue of Hand to Hand focuses on all things STEM.

STEM exhibits. STEM programs. STEM events. We hear a lot about children’s museums adding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to their educational offerings. Some museums also add an “A” for Art (STEAM). But what does STEM really mean in the context of a children’s museum, or in an early childhood area of a science center? What constitutes a “valid” STEM experience? And how can a museum set up appropriate learning goals for STEM experiences for early learners?

One useful framework for thinking about these questions starts with three broad aspects of STEM:

  • STEM Content
  • STEM Skills
  • STEM Habits of Mind

STEM in children’s museums encompasses a broad range of activities and when developing such activities, it increases the learning impact to include as many of these three elements as possible. Children’s museums often include STEM in much of what they do—sometimes without even knowing it. But museums can have the greatest impact when they help learners and/or their caregivers recognize how an activity specifically supports STEM learning.

STEM Content

Widely available STEM content offers many opportunities for introducing concepts through exhibits, programs, and activities. The content matter for Science, the “S” in STEM, spans from astronomy to zoology. Technology includes materials and objects that range from tiny devices to software to huge facilities, which can encompass building structures, water play, and working with model trains and traffic signals. Engineering includes concepts such as strength, flexibility, and balance, plus the design of things that people use. Math includes geometry, numbers, and patterns, among many other concepts. All of these STEM content areas can find a home among the exhibits, programs, and events of a children’s museum, and endless print and online resources provide ideas for creative staff who wish to include STEM in their offerings.

However, research on learning has shown that developing activities with the goal of simply teaching content, including STEM, can actually be counterproductive in the preschool years. There is little research showing that rote acquisition of STEM facts at an early age leads children to consider STEM careers or even to develop useful STEM skills later in life. Instead, we advocate using STEM content as a platform, or base, for meaningful learning about STEM skills and STEM habits of mind.

STEM Skills

Skills, the second key element of STEM, utilize critical thinking and problem solving to make connections across multiple domains of children’s development. STEM skills have their basis in science process skills, such as observing, classifying, asking questions, predicting, experimenting, and modeling. Everyday tasks in a child’s life, such as solving a puzzle, learning to get dressed, or testing out the properties of primary colors, can reinforce STEM skills. Each discipline involves further skills such as identifying categories in science, ushiing tools in technology, repurposing materials in engineering, or measuring in math, which build on proficiency and mastery across STEM practices. These competencies can be learned and practiced from an early age, and activities based on children’s natural curiosity form an ideal way to build STEM skills.

In science, for example, process skills include asking a question (e.g. “Are all of my fingerprints the same?”), creating a hypothesis, designing an experiment to test it, analyzing the results, and communicating the findings effectively to others. Young scientists are often curious about concrete things, like their own body or the food they eat, from their worldview. Taking this curiosity a step further and asking children to share their reasoning for a hypothesis or observation promotes more advanced science thinking.

Technology is generally seen as the process of making things, or using tools, materials, and skills to improve something or create novel solutions or products. Building with blocks is a time-tested introduction to technology skill building. Through exhibits, programs, and events, children’s museums have many other opportunities for young visitors to learn about the process of building by using simple tools and materials.

Engineering, the third element of STEM, is a process for designing solutions to problems that involves meeting a goal while working within constraints. The photo on the cover of this issue shows students engaged with the problem: “How can we design a model windmill that will lift a cupful of pennies on a string (the goal), using the materials and equipment provided (the constraints)?” Iteration, controlling variables, and persisting through failure are key elements in early engineering experiences. It is important to break down the engineering design cycle into smaller parts (build and test) or to simplify materials (paper strips, straws, and paperclips), so young children can focus on using familiar materials in new ways. This removes extraneous information and allows the engineering thought processes to come through.

Mathematics, the fourth element of STEM, is vast and influences the other three at almost every step. Math skills include the ability to count, measure, estimate, and solve problems, as well as perform other activities such as sorting a series of 3D objects by color, shape, or size, identifying patterns, or making inferences based on statistical reasoning. While these seem like complex activities, children do them every day. Children’s museums can help visitors improve their motivation and skills by providing engaging, challenging activities based on math.

While each area of STEM has a set of process skills, in reality, these skill sets overlap and reinforce each other. For example, being able to count and measure (math) is key for collecting data needed to test a hypothesis (science) or assessing whether a constructed model (technology) adequately solves a problem (engineering).

Habits of Mind

Perhaps the most important part of STEM for museum visitors is the set of habits of mind that lead children to engage with STEM in the first place, or make use of STEM later in a career or daily life. STEM habits of mind are ways of thinking that become so integrated into a student’s learning that they become mental habits. Key habits of mind associated with STEM include traits such as curiosity, creativity, collaboration, communication, confidence, critical thinking, and leadership, along with other traits such as open-mindedness, skepticism, and persistence.

Most of these traits could apply equally well to non-STEM fields, such as drama, sports, or music. So how does a children’s museum offer a program in creativity and convince parents and other stakeholders that they are supporting STEM learning?

What Is STEM in a Children’s Museum?

STEM surrounds us, but the key element that distinguishes STEM in a children’s museum is intentionality. When museum staff and volunteers make connections to the STEM in a mirror, a pile of stones, a child’s scooter, or a texture wall, they transform these items into STEM exhibits. For example, a museum educator reading the “Three Little Pigs” to a child parent group can easily turn the story experience into a STEM learning experience by asking children about the strength of various materials used to build the three houses (which of course has a big effect on whether the house will “blow down”). They can ask children about wind, the ways that they have experienced it or whether they have ever seen a tree blown over after a storm. By taking a STEM habits-of-mind approach, the educator could also discuss how experiments, teamwork, and communication could have affected the outcome of the story.

Another important way that museums can foster STEM learning is to encourage caregivers to take activities, games, concepts, and STEM habits of mind home from a museum visit. When adults engage their children in simple STEM activities (“What do you think made that burrow in our lawn?”) or daily activities (“Let’s bake some cookies together, and you can measure out two cups of flour.”), they are building STEM literacy through content, skills, and habits of mind. Celebrating moments like these during their museum visit or modeling how child-directed inquiry and play can lead to STEM learning can empower caregivers to build STEM literacy with their young learners.

How Children’s Museums Can Include STEM

Take a look at your exhibits with STEM glasses on. Observe how children and caregivers use the exhibits   and materials. In what ways can you highlight STEM learning that is already happening? How can you make small (or big!) changes to enhance STEM learning? Dramatic play areas are rich with opportunities for STEM learning, as children are already engaging in narratives that help them make sense of the world and develop self-regulation, collaboration, and perspective taking—important skills for the STEM field and beyond. Play areas such as grocery stores encourage math skills (order of operations, balancing equations, dividing resources). Veterinary clinic or farm exhibits can open conversations about animal behavior and traits, and medical clinic exhibits can prompt questions about the human body.

Light, magnetism, and air are examples of physical science content often found in children’s museums that can be explored through cause and effect. Understanding causal relationships leads to experimentation, creative use of materials, finding solutions, or making models.

Art studios and makerspaces provide interesting mediums for using STEM concepts and skills. Approaching art and STEM simultaneously, rather than as separate entities, creates additional entry points for learning. Capillary action is a great example of science content that can be authentically explored through art using primary colored markers, coffee filters, and water: a true STEAM activity.

Importantly, it is not necessary to be a scientist or engineer to develop good STEM programming at a children’s museum! It is far more important to be comfortable with the processes of STEM and confident in helping children and adults explore together. Exhibits and programming can be very simple: open-ended activities that promote trial-and-error experimentation work well in almost any setting. The best exhibits often have no right answer. Designing activities where children and adults can freely try alternatives and discuss the outcomes generates authentic co-learning moments.

Lead by Example

There are still many barriers to STEM learning for young children, whether it’s a lack of science identity among adult caregivers, persisting social biases (across gender, socioeconomic status, or race), or an increase in screen time leading to a decrease in outdoor play. Many community members have limited access to high quality STEM programming, which is why it is critical to embrace the work children’s museums already do to advance STEM and be thoughtful in how to make these experiences inclusive and accessible to all. Children’s museums already play an important role as conveners in their STEM communities. They can also serve as resources for adults and children within networks of early learning organizations (preschools, libraries, Boys & Girls clubs, etc.). In doing, our field can pave the path for embracing STEM as a process and as a way of learning about the world.

Charlie Trautmann, formerly a children’s science center director and ACM board member, is a visiting scholar at Cornell University’s Department of Human Development. Janna Doherty is program manager of early childhood programs at the Museum of Science, Boston.

To read other articles in the “STEM” issue of Hand to Handsubscribe todayACM members also receive both digital and printed complimentary copies of Hand to Hand. ACM members can access their copies through the Digital Resource Library. Contact Membership@ChildrensMuseums.org to gain access if needed.