At a preschool in Miami, children under 5 are studying the anatomy of pineapples through science, reading stories in smart tables, learning the dimension of shapes and doing garden sales to practice their math, all while juggling with two languages: English and Spanish.
Exploration Station preschool is one of the few preschools nationwide to completely implement a STEM focus (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in its curriculum at the end of last year.
“This is a hands-on active learning center, where the teachers are highly trained and the children are encouraged to have a sense of wonder which is what brings the knowledge,” said Yolanda Borroto, director of Exploration Station, whose staff is 90 percent Latino.
The private preschool currently has about 85 children enrolled ages 1-5, and tuition averages that of others preschools in the area. Since the preschool forms part of Miami-Dade College, they do offer a discount to parents working there.
To prove the benefits of STEM, the school conducts state-wide assessments and monitors the children’s behavior. According to Borroto, the tests have shown that the Exploration Station children who are in Miami- Dade County Public Schools this year are at the top 85 percent of the state.
But Borroto assures that the best indication of their success is in the vocabulary and the language used by the preschool students.
“STEM brings a lot of language and when the children begin to use that language, they begin to have different behavior towards the things they are doing — that’s when you know it’s working,” said Borroto.
The school has a complete focus on STEM, but they like to incorporate the arts and music with the belief that it’s all derived from science. The children also have access to an art room where they work with papier-mâché, among many other things.
“As for a pre-school emphasis on STEM, I would prefer there be a focus on the practices and habits of STEM rather than any specific STEM content,” said Jim Bader, research scholar and director of Center for Science and Mathematics Education in Case Western Reserve University. “All kids, even those that young, need training in being observant about the world around them, encouraged to ask questions, and supported in developing and designing solutions to problems.”
The classes are in English, but some teachers incorporate Spanish in all their activities at a request from the parents, who want their children to remain fully bilingual.
“I want them to learn both languages, it’s my culture. Here they push them to learn both languages,” said Monica Cuelles, whose daughter is enrolled in the preschool. “I like the environment here, the teachers, the commodities and the teacher-student-ratios.”
There are no nationwide standards from the U.S. Department of Education for preschools and early childhood education programs. Implementing a STEM focus is a decision made by the state or by the school.
Many other preschools nationwide have implemented STEM in some aspects of their curriculum, but very few are completely STEM based.
Among the preschools implementing STEM is Cal Poly Preschool Learning Lab in California.
“These are the skills that are going to benefit them in life, building independence and confidence, and it is never too soon to start creating that mindset,” said Bader. “The key is to make sure these tasks are presented in an age-appropriate manner.”
The hand-picked preschool staff at Exploration Station is monitored, continuously trained and encouraged to continue their own learning.
“People may think that kids at this age are not learning and that they are only playing, but what people don’t understand is that as they play, they learn,” said Nancy Suarez, a teacher at the preschool. “When I observe them, I see them practicing the things I taught.”
In addition to teacher training, the preschool is routinely receiving expertise advice in science, technology, engineering and math from the college.
“The most important thing is the resources available to us and the support from other disciplines in the college,” Borroto said. “But here, it’s not you having a culture and me having a culture – it’s just our preschool culture.”
Once the children graduate from the preschool, they feed into the Miami-Dade public schools.
As Exploration Station continues to develop, it hopes to become a model school where other preschools in the nation send their teachers to train, Borroto said.
“For me, it was always an obligation to give back the education and the opportunity given to me,” Borroto said.