All Posts (44)

Sort by

Come and learn about Dr. Jacob and Dr. Hagevik's work on garden-based STEAM learning.


Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs, Full Professor and Chair of AIS at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP)

12546480482?profile=RESIZE_180x180Dr. Rita Hagevik, Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in Science Education, Biology Department, UNC-Pembroke.


Author Bio

Dr. Jacobs holds a PhD in Social Welfare with an emphasis in Child Welfare policy from the University of Chicago. She is the co-editor of American Indian Women of Proud Nations: Essays on History, Language, and Education (Peter Lang, 2016), the primary editor of Upon Her Shoulders: Southeastern Native Women Share Their Stories of Justice, Spirit, and Community (Blair Publishing, June 2022), and a co-editor for  American Indian Women of Proud Nations Second Edition: Essays on History, Language, Healing, and Education, (Peter Lang, 2024). She has authored articles in The North Carolina Medical Journal, Native South, The Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, Reflections: A Social Work Narrative Journal, Childcare in Practice, The Journal of Social Service Research, and the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services. She has also authored book sections in Major Problems in American Indian History, 3rd Edition (Cengage,2015); Native and African Americans (Albatross, 2005); Major Problems in American Indian History. 2nd Edition (Cengage, 2001); Native Chicago (2nd ed.) (McNaughton & Gunn, 2001); Two Spirit People: American Indian Lesbian Women and Gay Men (Haworth Press, 1997).

Dr. Hagevik completed her degrees at North Carolina State University with a Ph.D. in Science Education and Forestry. Her research focuses on climate change and sustainability, garden-based learning, preservice science teacher education, and teacher support systems. She has conducted studies and published books and articles on the use of STEM in the out-of-door environment, using Geographic Information Systems and mobile technologies in teaching and learning, agriculture education, citizen science, and place-based learning. Her current work focuses on integrating technology and art into STEM (STEAM) learning in the out-of-door environment with adolescents. She currently serves as co/PI on the Smart Foodscapes USDA-NIFA grant, and co/PI on an S-STEM grant from NSF called COMPASS2, both of which investigate creating nature and science identity and STEM career interest, one in preK12 and the other in undergraduate students. ORCID # 0000-0002-6417-1349

Kids in the Garden: Caring for the Environment and Making Healthy Food Choices

I do not recall the specific date when Rita and I met, but she called me about a project to evaluate schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education; we did that project and while we were discussing and visiting those schools, we began talking about Rita’s Kids in the Garden project and the service-learning project that I do with my Introduction to American Indian Studies classes. We discovered that we had many common interests. We wanted our students to think and learn about where their food comes from and to learn what it takes to have healthy food on our plates. Children are never too young to learn about healthy food and to learn that they like different foods. They can experience this by going outside and working with others or in a garden they create. By the time they are in college, they’ve had many food experiences, but they may not have had good experiences with healthy foods or understand that most foods come from plants.

12546466653?profile=RESIZE_400xThe photo above is from my Introduction to American Indian Studies class where we go to New Ground Farm for a day (actually an hour and a half or more) of service. Service-learning with a farm that is Native owned is important to the Foodways theme of the course. Students have to write about their day of service and they also have to write another paper about their own dietary choices identifying the Indigenous foods that they are mostly, mindlessly eating.

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) is a small campus with a majority-minority population. Most of our students come from families where diabetes is a known health concern and many have more than one extended family member dealing with the disease. We also happen to have a campus that is surrounded on two sides by fast-food restaurants that are strategically situated across from campus.

I know from reading my students’ papers on their eating habits that they would like to eat healthier than they typically do, but most feel that they don’t have time to plan their meals. All of them write that they eat healthy homemade meals whenever they can with their families, but most admit that they don’t eat that way throughout the week.

The most popular on-campus restaurant is Chick-fil-A; some of my students eat there at least three times a week or more. They cite the convenience and say that the cafeteria costs too much or takes too much time. What my students don’t know when they write their papers is that many Native Americans are diagnosed with diabetes as young adults (McLaughlin, 2010). Robeson County has tracts where 22% of its population has diabetes and it has an overall diabetes rate of 18.4% (NCDHHS, 2020).

The majority of my students are not Native American, but when we talk about their foodways papers as a group, most students know someone who has diabetes; this is a national issue.

Robeson County is a county with a very long history of agriculture both before and since colonization. Now we have a Walmart where a lot of people do their grocery shopping and we still have a grocery store called Piggly Wiggly. At “The Pig”, you can see a wide variety of fresh or nearly fresh vegetables and fruit on styrofoam trays wrapped in cellophane (plastic). Shopping there makes me wonder if children frequenting the store know that styrofoam and plastic wrapping are not the way we used to get our produce.

It used to be that families here all maintained a family garden where children from a very young age were regularly engaged in the care and weeding of the plants from which they would later harvest most of the foods their family would eat throughout the year. Those foods had to last all year because most Native families could not afford to eat out or shop at grocery stores regularly. Families also raised their chickens and pigs for meat. Now most families shop weekly at a grocery store and some online to feed their families. Some families do not cook at home at all and some children do not know that cooking is an important skill until they come to campus and learn that sometimes the campus cafeteria isn’t open.

I recently changed the directions for the foodways paper; I asked my students to include a comparative piece. Now in addition to tracking their eating habits for two days and writing about their results, they also have to call an elder in their family to ask about what sorts of foods their elder was eating when they were their age. Most students have never asked an elder about what foods they ate when they were young. Many are surprised that their elders had very different lives from their own and that they were eating healthy foods from family gardens. The agricultural habits of my students’ elders were very similar to those of Native people in Robeson County. To have enough food to eat, families had to maintain a garden. It wasn’t just a habit of being raised in a Native community, it was a condition of survival for a lot of North Carolina families.

Children learn about food from their parents, extended families, and from their communities. Children don’t have to wait to learn about where their food comes from. And families don’t have to start a family garden to teach their children about eating healthy foods. I don’t encourage my students to start a garden because I understand how much work a garden demands. Instead, as much as possible, I encourage them to shop for organically grown foods without pesticides (like those at New Ground Farm). We also talk about the realities of being budget-conscious as well as diet-conscious. Trying to make healthy choices within our budgets doesn’t always mean we can purchase foods that are organic and pesticide-free. However, my students know that they need to start paying attention to what they eat and that diabetes may be a consequence if they don’t.

Here is where Mary Ann and I disagree. I strongly encourage students and parents to start growing their gardens wherever they are. It is easier than ever with the many new growing products available such as garden towers and planters, vertical gardening, container gardening, and raised bed gardening. Mary Ann and I agree on sustainable gardens that are organic and pesticide-free. A sustainable garden helps the earth by regenerating soil, encouraging biodiversity, and improving ecosystem health. These practices include planting herbs and native wildflowers along with vegetables. Some eco-friendly, time and money-saving methods are composting, using water barrels, companion gardening, and encouraging good bugs to live in your garden for pest control.

12546479061?profile=RESIZE_180x18012546479660?profile=RESIZE_180x180The Kids in the Garden program, funded by grants from the Burroughs-Wellcome SSEP program, Duke Energy Foundation, and the Farm Bureau of Robeson County, engages preK12 students and teachers in garden-based STEAM learning using the 3H Model of socioemotional learning (Trundle & Smith, 2017). Garden-based learning has been shown to improve academic performance, reduce behavioral problems, promote personal development, enhance problem-solving skills, and encourage physical activity in children (Berg et al., 2020; Cottrell & Cottrell, 2020). Connecting children with nature through out-of-door experiences such as gardens fosters an appreciation of nature and pro-environmental behaviors (DeVille et al., 2021) leading to the development of nature identity, science identity, and STEM career interest (Wheeler et al., 2024). The grants provided funding for four elementary sustainable school gardens in the Public Schools of Robeson County, a middle school garden in Bladen County, and a high school garden in Cumberland County. PreK5 students and teachers with guidance from UNCP professors Hagevik, Campbell, and Farley, and undergraduate Biology students designed, planted, and maintained the sustainable school gardens year-round in Robeson County. The program is connected to a University focus on agriculture in the region. The UNCP Campus Garden and Apiary is a model for the schools and community of sustainable gardens and is a place 12546484864?profile=RESIZE_400xwhere many activities such as education, research, and outreach occur. Some of the many activities the students engage in include nature journaling (Laws, 2021), citizen science (Hagevik & Campbell, 2023), creating three sisters’ gardens (Trundle et al., 2022) observing and creating homes for native bees (Wheeler et al., 2024), studying pollen (Wheeler et al., 2023), growing medicinal plants and herbs, and engineering how to grow, harvest, and cook your food (Vela et al, 2022). Children are natural explorers and are curious about the world around them. Parents and teachers can facilitate children’s wonder and inquiring minds by engaging them in out-of-door experiences such as sustainable gardening to connect them to the natural world, expose them to STEAM, and create a community and culture of caring for where they live. 












Farm Field Trips
UNCP Campus Garden & Apiary - Contact or
New Ground Farm sells produce from 7 am-10 am at the Lumberton Farmers Market. For more information, call 910-521-1768.

Citizen Science Projects

o   List of Insect Citizen Science Projects:

o   Sci Starter:

o   iNaturalist:

o   Bumblebee Watch: 

o   The Great Pumpkin (Squash) Project:  

o   The Great Sunflower Project: 

o   BeeSpotter (primarily for Illinois): 

o   Monarch Watch: 

Suggested Books:

o   A great field guide for insects: Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America (Eaton & Kaufman 2007, ISBN: 978-0618153107) with our students.

o   The Reason for a Flower: A Book About Flowers, Pollen, and Seeds (Heller, 1999, ISBN: ‎ 978-0698115590) clearly explains the reproduction of a flower from the perspective of pollen and pollinators.

o   We recommend the following two books for engaging young students on native bees: Bees are the best! (Van Orman & Wilson, 2020, ISBN: 978-0578665641) and Next Time you See a Bee (Morgan, 2019, ISBN: 978-1681406510).

o   The Bees in your Backyard: A Guide to North American Bees (Wilson and Messinger Carril, 2015, ISBN: 978-0691160771) includes natural history and identification information for common bee species.

Web Resources

o   For information about insect conservation and pollinator gardens, the Xerces Society is the lead resource:

o   Crown Bees is the key resource for native bee home information, care, and supplies: They also have a growing educator modules section: 

o   Scientific identification key to bee species:  This is used for microscopic bee identification and the language is for an expert; however, within any given bee species page (clicking on hyperlinked names on the left panel) are resources for images and bees’ biology (nesting habits, floral preferences, defining characteristics).


o   Wilson’s TEDx USU talk, “Save the Bees! Wait, Was that a Bee?”  

o   Bumblebee Buzz Pollination Video “This vibrating Bumblebee Unlocks a Flower’s Hidden Treasure”:  

o   Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee Pollination Video “This Bee Gets Punched by Flowers For Your Ice Cream”:   

o   Mason Bee Twig-nest Building “Watch This Bee Build Her Bee-jeweled Nest”: 

o   Small Farmers of the Year 2022 New Ground Farms

Online Games

o   Reach for the Sun by Filament Games:

o   Colours in NanoPhotonics:

o   Pick the Pollinator:

o   Plant Reproduction Science Games:


Berg, S., Bradford, B., Barrett, J., Robinson, D., Camara, F., & Perry, T. (2020). Meaning-making
    of student experiences during outdoor exploration time. Journal of Adventure Education and
    Outdoor Learning
, 21, p. 172 - 183. 

Cottrell, J., & Cottrell, S. (2020). Outdoor skills education: what are the benefits for health,
    learning and lifestyle?. World Leisure Journal, 62, p. 219 - 241.

DeVille, N. V., Tomasso, L. P., Stoddard, O. P., Wilt, G. E., Horton, T. H., Wolf, K. L., Brymer, K.,
    Kahn, P. H., & James, P. (2021). Time spent in nature is associated with increased
    pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. International Journal of Environmental Research
    and Public Health
, 18(14), p. 7498.

Hagevik, R. & Campbell, K. (2023). Citizen science to engage youth in pollinator conservation 
     for the social good. In F. S. Allaire & J. E. Killham (Eds.), Teaching and Learning Online:
    Science for Secondary Grade Levels
(171-182). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing

Laws, J.M. (2021). The Laws Sketchbook for Nature Journaling. Heyday Publishers.

McLaughlin, S. (2010). Traditions and Diabetes Prevention: A Healthy Path for Native     Americans. Diabetes Spectrum, 23(4), 272–277.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services NCDHHS (2020). Healthy Communities: Robeson County Retrieved Apr 29, 2024:

Trundle, K.C. & Smith, M.M., (2017). A hearts-on, hands-on, minds-on model for preschool
    science learning, Young Children. 72(1), p. 80–86.

Trundle, K., Hagevik, R., Wheeler, L.*, Vela, K. N., Parslow, M.*, & Joy, D. (2022).
    The 3-H social and emotional learning cycle and the three sisters’ garden. Science Activities.
(1), p. 32-49, DOI: 10.1080/00368121.2022.2147892.

Vela, K. N., Parslow, M.*, Hagevik, R., & Trundle, K.C. (2022). Give Plants an Inch; They’ll Take
     a Yard, Mathematics Teacher: Learning and Teaching PK-12. 115(10), p. 722-729.

Wheeler, L., Trundle, K.C., Hagevik, R., Parslow, M., Vela, K.N. (under review, 2024).
     Middle school students’ nature identity: A potential pathway to STEM careers. Journal of
     Research in Science Teaching.

Wheeler, L., Hagevik, R., & Trundle, K.C. (2023). The birds and the bees, the flowers and
     the trees. 46(3), p. 38-43. Science Scope.

Wheeler, L., Parslow, M., Hagevik, R., & Trundle, K.C. (in press, 2024). BEE a habitat engineer.
     Science Scope.

Read more…

Fact: Assistive technology ranges from low-tech aids, such as grasping supports, to specialized high-tech supports, such as an augmentative communication system, based on the individualized needs of the child.


Victoria Waters, M.Ed. is an Educational Consultant at UNC’s FPG Child Development Institute and Outreach Manager for STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE).

12420270271?profile=RESIZE_180x180Chih-Ing Lim, Ph.D. is a Senior Technical Assistance Specialist at UNC’s FPG Child Development Institute and Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE).

12420270288?profile=RESIZE_180x180Ann Sam, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at UNC’s FPG Child Development Institute and Technical Assistance Specialist for STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE).

Positive and inclusive STEM learning opportunities are essential for all young children, as interest in and belief in their ability to succeed in STEM fields forms at a young age (Early STEM Working Group, 2017). For young children with disabilities (birth to five), the use of assistive technology (AT) may be needed to provide access to STEM learning opportunities. Combining AT with effective teaching can promote children’s participation in learning (Winton, Buysse, Rous, Epstein, & Pierce, 2011). A common myth about AT is that it has to be an expensive high-tech electronic device, such as a tablet (US Department of Education, 2024). This is not the case. In fact, AT is the use of “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities” (Sandall et al., 2005). In other words, AT spans from low-tech aids such as visual cues and grasping supports that are usually created by families, teachers, or therapists, to mid-tech supports, such as button switches and standers to high-tech supports such as custom-built augmentative  communication device  and powered wheelchairs.

The following table provides examples of low-tech to high-tech AT devices/interventions that are most commonly used to support young children (birth to five) with disabilities in accessing learning opportunities.

 Assistive Tech


Low-tech (typically do not require batteries, are inexpensive, and are created by families, teachers, or therapists)

·  Visual cues (e.g., colored borders, visual schedules)

·  Tactile outlines

·  Communication boards/binders (e.g., PECS)

·  Grasping supports (e.g., page turners using popsicle sticks)

·  Stabilizing mats/low trays

Mid-tech (generally need a power source but are generally inexpensive)

·  Speech-generating device (e.g., fixed displays, button switches, talking keyboards)

·  Apps

·  Timer

·  Switch-access device (i.e., to operate toys or other electronic devices)

High-tech (typically require a power source, are tailored to the young child’s specific needs, and can be pricey)

·  Augmentative communication device (i.e., dynamic and custom built)

·  Powered wheelchair

·  Tablet/Laptop

 Adapted from Qahmash, 2018, The IRIS Center, 2010; 2020, Waters et al., 2022, and STEMIE, 2023

Be sure to check out:




Read more…

The development of educational app, My STEM Adventure, illustrates the value of adding diversity and inclusion elements from the beginning of a project. Read the blog post to learn more!

12233626470?profile=RESIZE_180x180Wendy Sapp, Ph.D., Senior Project Director for Bridge Multimedia, leads numerous educational accessibility initiatives, including the development of four award-winning accessible games available on the PBS KIDS website, the production of thousands of hours of audio description for children’s educational television programming, and the exploration of best practices in American Sign Language for children who are Deaf. All of Dr. Sapp’s work is informed by her background as a special education teacher and Orientation & Mobility specialist, Dr. Sapp received her Ph.D. in Special Education from Vanderbilt University.


When developing early STEM educational content, you can increase the content’s reach by deliberately creating inclusive features during the pre-production design phase. That’s what accessibility company, Bridge Multimedia and the STEMIE Center did when they partnered to create My STEM Adventure, a free app created to teach STEM concepts to children. The app combines elements of a scavenger hunt and create-your-own-story activities into real world “adventures” for children and their caregivers to experience. Each adventure allows the children and their caregivers to explore early STEM concepts such as compare/contrast, patterning, cause & effect, and creating & testing hypotheses. After completing each activity, you can print the individualized story of your educational STEM adventure as a PDF or generate it as an e-book (with your voice). From the app’s inception, Bridge and STEMIE understood the importance of designing the game to be engaging, inclusive and available to all children – the first step was making certain that the game had a wide range of accessibility options for children with disabilities.

 The disability community uses the term “born accessible” to describe multimedia content that has been designed from the ground up, to meet digital accessibility standards. This approach was taken during the creation of My STEM Adventure, which features a full range of accessibility features including captioning, integrated audio description, switch access, and eye-tracking technology. The app offers customizable caption size and color as well as the ability to modify sounds and visuals. These functionalities open the game up to the nearly one million pre-school children with disabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, almost seven percent of the pre-school population has a cognitive, sensory, or mobility impairment making them eligible to receive disability services. Bridge Multimedia considers it essential that full accessibility be built into educational gaming to make it available to this population. Bridge created a document called The Disability Mapping Guide for Children’s Digital Game Producers which it provided to the app developers at FableVision, to ensure that My STEM Adventure was born accessible.  

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2023), roughly 3.8 million students, in U.S. schools, are native Spanish-speakers who are not proficient in English. This is an important consideration for designers of digital educational content. To broaden the reach of My STEM Adventure, Bridge made certain it was designed with the option of experiencing the learning activities in Spanish. Knowing that Latinx students benefit from programs and experiences that encourage science identity, Bridge created a young Latina character named Leila Diaz to be the app’s avatar guide. Visually, Leila serves as a science role model for Latina students, specifically - and girls, in general. Leila’s personality, which is fun-loving and enthusiastic, was designed to appeal to all children. Creating interesting, diverse, and engaging characters to deliver a game’s educational content can serve to make the gaming (and learning) a more open and inclusive experience.

Another way of building an inclusive experience into a game is to design it so the gameplay encourages enjoyable, learning interactivity with a parent, sibling, or friend. DeLoach et al (21015) report that parent involvement in educational activities positively affect children's cognitive development, communication skills, pre-literacy and pre-writing skills, comprehension skills, interaction with peers and adults, and learning. My STEM Adventure was created so that parents and children could explore (and have fun with) science concepts in their every day world. The parent hints provide cues to help parents better understand how to help their child learn during the activity and throughout the day. The book-publishing feature at the end of each activity gives children the opportunity to review the activity at any time and share a chronicle of the adventure with friends and family members – which includes more people in the overall experience!

In conclusion, careful planning during an educational game’s pre-production stage can result in expanding the STEM-based product’s reach. Keep inclusion in mind, with deliberate attention to accessibility for players with disabilities. Also, address the Spanish speaking community and the importance of ensuring that the game is culturally relevant to diverse students. The ad-free My STEM Adventure app is available to download through the App Store and Google Play, with no info-sharing required.

Download My STEM Adventure to see how Bridge Multimedia and STEMIE designed an app based on the premise that educational gaming is at its most effective when it is as inclusive as possible.



 National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). English Learners in Public Schools. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved [date], from

 DeLoatche, K. J., Bradley Klug, K. L., Ogg, J., Kromrey, J. D., & Sundman Wheat, A. N. (2015). Increasing parent involvement among Head Start families: A randomized control group study. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43, 271–279.


Read more…

This blog post shares some of our experiences at STEMIE in partnership with Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill, NC. Collaborating on the development of an innovative, inclusive space for infants, toddlers and their caregivers in the museum called The Nest, creating early STEM learning experiences, and strengthening our partnership with Kidscope Early Learning Center have been highlights of this partnership.

12183365058?profile=RESIZE_180x180By Samantha Shannon, she/her

Nest Coordinator, Kidzu Children’s Museum

Samantha has a Master’s in Early Childhood Education and has spent the past 10 years working with young children and their families. She brings her education and experience to The Nest, where she curates the space, creates the programming, and facilitates the play sessions.

11027016460?profile=RESIZE_180x180By Jessica Amsbary PhD

Jessica Amsbary, PhD is a Technical Assistance Specialist at UNC’s FPG Child Development Institute and Program Coordinator for the Master in Education for Experienced Teachers in Early Childhood Intervention and Family Support at the School of Education at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research interests involve the development and implementation of effective and inclusive early intervention resources and support for young children with disabilities and their families. She has a doctorate in Applied Developmental Sciences and Special Education from UNC Chapel Hill, a M.S. in Early Childhood Development with a specialization in infancy from Erikson Institute, and a B.A. degree in Psychology from the University of Notre Dame.

12183368290?profile=RESIZE_400xBy Melanie Hatz Levinson

Melanie Hatz Levinson joined Kidzu in 2007 as its first Curator of Exhibits, Design and Programs, overseeing the museum’s first permanent exhibition and ultimately its expansion from a 2000 to 10,000 SF facility, supervising all aspects of the design, development, fabrication and installation of permanent and temporary learning environments and complimentary programming in each of its five locations. Previously, Melanie worked for over a decade on the curatorial staff of
the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she worked closely with the various divisions of the Museum’s Operations and Design staff, developing and installing capital and special exhibitions for the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History from the
University of Michigan, and holds graduate degrees in Art History and Archaeology from Columbia University and the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Early STEM learning is important for each and every child and early STEM learning opportunities are everywhere! We know that there are inequities for many children in accessing early STEM learning including opportunity gaps for children with disabilities or those in underserved communities (Clements et al., 2020; Sarama et al., 2018). Children’s museums are spaces  that foster inclusive STEM learning for all community members and we happen to have an amazing children’s museum right here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Kidzu embeds STEM and inclusion into learning spaces for young children, including a space, The Nest, designed specifically for infants and toddlers to engage in inclusive STEM learning experiences with each other and their educators and caregivers.

Kidzu and STEMIE began partnering around the idea of increasing access to high quality early STEM learning for all of our youngest learners and their educators and caregivers. When The Nest was complete, the Kidzu team began inviting local early care and education centers to visit the center on a regular basis, setting the stage for Kidzu to serve as an incubator site for STEMIE. As one of our STEMIE incubator sites, we collaborate and test out investigations with infants and toddlers and their educators to inform STEM learning trajectories in development at STEMIE. These playgroups serve to empower both the infants and toddlers and their early care and education providers in their confidence and competence in teaching and learning STEM concepts.

We have completed our first cycle of playgroups with two classes (one infant class and one two’s class) who visit The Nest every week, on alternating weeks. Over the course of ten months, we explored concepts such as force and motion, sounds, causation, sequences, and textures/properties of matter through play and exploration of different materials and activities tailored to each class’s specific interests. Every week we learn more about how our youngest learners think about and explore these concepts and activities. It is amazing to be able to so closely observe the thought process and problem solving skills of a one year old, for example, working through how to grasp and then drop a ball! 

The STEM learning that we observed and documented during the playgroups will be used to inform outreach boxes that Kidzu is developing to send to early childhood educators across the state. These boxes will include specific STEM materials and other resources for educators to incorporate into their learning strategies.

These resources use evidence-based approaches in early STEM learning to provide educators with ways to introduce STEM concepts into their classrooms and are aligned with the North Carolina Foundations for Early Learning and Development Standards. Having easy access to these age-appropriate and STEM educational resources will foster healthy childhood development for underserved families, lessening opportunity gaps, and ultimately leading to more children entering kindergarten STEM-ready. We are grateful to the Kenan Charitable Trust for their continued support of this project.

We are also exploring funding opportunities to conduct systematic research studies focused on inclusive early STEM learning for all young children and families/caregivers in our community and beyond.

In sum, we have collaborated together to extend purposeful and intentional inclusive early STEM learning for our youngest learners in informal learning spaces. It has been amazing to see our visitors engage, grow, and become empowered STEM learners each week. Some questions to consider:

1. How might you be able to support early STEM learning for all young children?

2. Is there a local informal learning space with which you may have an opportunity to collaborate?

3. Do you have ideas for setting up inclusive informal STEM learning spaces?








Clements, D. H., Vinh, M., Lim, C., & Sarama, J. (2020). STEM for inclusive excellence and equity. Early Education and Development, 1-24. doi:10.1080/10409289.2020.1755776

Sarama, J., Clements, D. H., Nielsen, N., Blanton, M., Romance, N., Hoover, M., . . . McCulloch, C. (2018). Considerations for STEM education from PreK through grade 3. Retrieved from Education Development Center,

Read more…

Read the blog post and learn how to utilizing outdoor spaces and routines as a context for supporting early language, physical activity, and consequently, STEM learning. 


Sarah Pedonti

Sarah is an assistant professor in Birth-Kindergarten Education at Western Carolina University. She supports early childhood teacher candidates in implementing high-quality inclusive environments for diverse children and families, especially in the language and literacy skills that undergird later STEM learning. In her research, she focuses on populations of young children at risk for later reading difficulty, including children in poverty (Head Start/Early Head Start), children with disabilities, and dual language learners (DLLs), as well as children at the intersection of those identities.

12145015262?profile=RESIZE_180x180Derek Becker

Derek Becker is an associate professor at Western Carolina University in Birth-Kindergarten education. He teaches a range of early childhood research methods courses, along with math, science and curriculum. He conducts research on the cognitive and academic benefits of movement and play. He is specifically interested in utilizing outdoor context and harnessing the physical aspects of motor-based play to promote physical and cognitive health.

Outdoor environments can be an authentic and engaging context for supporting the early language and physical activity of children with and without disabilities. Language skills are an important foundational skill for reading comprehension (Hjetland et al., 2017), which is essential to STEM skills such as scientific (Cabell & Hwang, 2020; Siler et al., 2010; Mayer et al., 2014) and mathematical reasoning (Cartwright et al., 2022; Foster et al., 2015; Gjicali et al., 2019).Physical activity has been found to produce improvements in children’s executive function, including attention and self-control (Willoughby et al., 2018), which are also important foundational skills for STEM (Willoughby et al., 2021; Ribner et al., 2023). In this blog, we describe concrete strategies for utilizing outdoor spaces and routines as a context for supporting early language, physical activity, and consequently, STEM learning. 


Research on language interactions between children and their caregivers specifically in outdoor spaces is limited, but what little research does exist shows us that outdoor interactions can produce: 

  • More responsive and connected conversations between adults and children 
  • More overall talk by children (Cameron-Faulkner et al., 2018)  

There are several dimensions of language that researchers agree support children’s later achievement (LARRC, 2015; LARRC, 2017), including the amount and types of talk (vocabulary) and complexity of talk (syntax). In the following sections, we describe how these dimensions could potentially support STEM learning in outdoor settings. 


Vocabulary is important for STEM learning because research shows us that children’s vocabularies predict later academic achievement, and that knowledge of “Tier 2” and “Tier 3” words is particularly important (O’Reilly et al., 2019).  Examples of “advanced”, or “Tier 2” (Beck et al., 2012) vocabulary words that children might be able to learn in outdoor interactions are words like “melt” or “examine”, while “Tier 3” topic-specific words like “bark”, “moss”, “fungus”, or “reptile” may be helpful for types of ecological knowledge. Knowledge of these words is important for later reading comprehension. Many science texts for school-age children include words like these, which are not commonly used in everyday conversation.  

Additionally, while outdoors, children can learn not just nouns for different animals or plants they see, but also action verbs that are supported by physical activity, such as “leap”, “climb”, “step”, or “scramble”.  


Syntax, or grammatical knowledge of the arrangement of sentences and words is another important predictor of later reading comprehension (Catts et al., 2006; LARRC & Chiu, 2018; Storch & Whitehurst, 2002). The more complex a sentence is, the greater reading comprehension is required to understand it. Exposure to complex sentences and utterances from caregivers supports children’s ability to learn those structures and internalize them for use in their own speech and writing.  

For example, adverbial conjunctions such as “because”, “since”, and “so”, serve a “bridging” purpose between two thoughts, and expose children to casual thinking. You might explain the purpose of a pinecone’s scales by saying “Pinecones close when it’s about to rain because they need to keep their seeds dry.” This sentence exposes the child to a complex grammatical structure similar to many scientific texts while also giving a casual explanation for a scientific phenomenon (Owen Van Horne et al., 2023). Therefore, the more exposure children have to this kind of complex language, the more equipped they will be to understand those structures when they encounter them in written texts.  

Cognitive verbs such as “think”, “need”, and “wonder” can also give children experience with both new vocabulary in the form of action-oriented verbs, but also syntactically complex sentence structures. These types of verbs often take a complement clause such as “that” or “if” to complete their meaning, as in “I think (that) the plant is growing”, or “I wonder if it will rain tonight”.  Helping children generate predictions and questions about scientific phenomena gives them experience and practice in using complement clauses. 

Other Language Skills to Focus on Outdoors  

Besides the dimensions of vocabulary and syntax, there are other considerations for outdoor language. These include: 

  • Pragmatic language (social conversations like saying excuse me to pass someone on the trail, turn-taking) 
  • Narrative language (pretending to go on a Bear Hunt, retell of important outings) 
  • Print awareness (pointing out signs and maps) 
  • Phonemic and alphabet awareness (reading signs and maps) 
  • Reading motivation (class-made books about field trips and other outdoor excursions are highly salient and have context personalization) 

Citizen science apps such as iNaturalist/Seek and the North Carolina Arboretum’s locale-specific ecoEXPLORE give children the opportunity to document and discuss their observations during outdoor time with other budding scientists. These apps can be used to scaffold rich discussion of outdoor observations, including Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary words and complex syntax for recording and evaluating predictions. They can also be used for supporting reading motivation for early decoders wanting to learn the names of favorite plants and animals. 

Physical activity 

 Outdoor language and STEM learning are also connected to children’s levels of physical activity (Willoughby et al, 2021) and their executive function (Ribner et al., 2023). A child that is ready to learn about a STEM concept such as pollination, must have the relevant vocabulary (e.g., bee, flower, pollen) and be able to link this vocabulary to the broader concept of pollination and the ecosystem that supports the bee and the flower. Executive function is often described as consisting of attention, working memory, and inhibitory control, and for children to learn, they need to be cognitively and emotionally ready to take in and retain the relevant information. Thus, to learn about how plants are pollinated, a child must: 

  • Focus attention to take in information about the bee and flower.
  • Inhibit attending to external distractions (a bird moving across field of vision) and internal distractions (emotions such as fear of being stung by the bee).
  • Retain and remember what they have seen and learn to make connections (bees pollinate flowers, flowers support the bees, bees make honey).

Physical activity, and especially physical activity that occurs in natural outdoor contexts (Boere et al., 2023), has been shown to support children’s emergent executive function and emotion regulation, which undergirds much of STEM learning (Becker et al., 2014; Hansen Sandseter et al., 2023). Researchers recommend that young children (ages 3 to 5) should get at least three hours of natural physical activity each day. This time in physically active play is important because when children move and play, the heart pumps blood to the brain (Mulser and Moreau, 2023), and over time, this can help improve attention and inhibitory control (Christiansen et al., 2019).  

Physical activity in outdoor contexts, particularly those with a measured degree of risk, are also linked to emotion regulation and prosocial skills (Cho et al., 2023; Hansen Sandseter et al., 2023). As a child faces a safe level of risk, such as the potential of being stung by a bee, or of skinning a knee when climbing a rock, mastery, self-confidence, and emotional control can develop. As these experiences occur with peers, children can learn to help support each other, experience this in return, and overcome fear. This can promote pragmatic language, social conversations, turn-taking, and strengthen prosocial skills. 

Children also interact and learn in outdoor spaces through movement and exploration. Gross motor skills involve muscles of the torso, arms, and legs and are used to achieve a movement task such as jumping or climbing. Executive function and gross motor skills are important for exploring outdoor spaces, and participating in cognitively challenging motor activities is linked to improvement in executive function (Hudson et al., 2020). Over time, physical activity and risky play can strengthen a child's executive function, self-control, and emotional control which are linked to school readiness and language development (Fitzpatrick et al., 2014; Imai et al., 2022). 

Skills that might be supported by outdoor exploration include:   

  • Running
  • Crawling
  • Galloping 
  • Hopping
  • Balancing 
  • Leaping
  • Jumping side to side

In summary, outdoor environments offer a motivating and natural context for children and families with and without disabilities to build experience with vocabulary and complex syntax that support STEM reasoning, while also engaging in the kinds of physically active gross motor play that promote pragmatic language, executive function and later STEM skills. Examples of activities you can engage in with your young children outdoors and how they may support language and physical activity skills undergirding STEM can be found below! 

Visit a local trail and… 

Language Extensions 

Physical Activity Extension 

Find a seed or seed-bearing plant 

Ask: “Why do you think the tree made that seed?” 

Model complex syntax through explanations: “Maybe it grew seed pods because those will help grow more baby trees” 

Model STEM vocabulary: Count the seeds or fruit you find; use the iNaturalist or ecoExplore apps to identify and name the plant. 

Encourage a child with bipedal mobility to hop high enough to snag a seed pod from a low-hanging crape myrtle or climb a magnolia to see the flowers. Encourage a child using mobility aids to roll or lean towards the object of interest. See if they want to help you crack or hull any thicker nuts or fruits by lifting and dropping large rocks on them. 

Look for a water source 

Ask: “What would happen if we dropped a stick in the stream? Where would it go?” 

Model complex syntax  through explanations: “There’s less water in the puddle now because you displaced, or splashed it out, when you jumped in” 

Model STEM vocabulary: “Displaced means moved.” 

Let a child with bipedal mobility leap across a small stream or puddle, or balance on a rock near a stream. Children using mobility aids might use their walker or cane to safely cross a puddle.  Encourage children who are able to hop in small puddles and bodies of water if they have appropriate footwear on and the water is clean. 

Look for an animal habitat (nest, knothole in a tree, burrow) 

Ask: “What do you think lives in there?” 

Model complex syntax through explanations: “Maybe bird that lives in this nest has left so that they can scavenge for food”. 

Model STEM vocabulary: “Scavenge means to hunt.” 

Ask children with both bipedal mobility and using mobility aids to race ahead (but still within sight) on the trail when they spy a potential animal home. Uneven terrain can also offer excellent opportunities for children with ankle or leg braces or orthotics to address therapeutic goals for balance, if appropriately supported. If your child makes a prediction about the type of animal inhabiting various spaces, ask them to show you how that animal moves (scamper, crawl, skip, roll).  

Look for downed trees or logs along the trail 

Ask: “What do you think happened to the tree?” 

Model complex syntax through explanations: “Maybe the rangers cut it down because it had a disease or pest.”  

Model STEM vocabulary: “A pest is a type of destructive insect or animal that can kill many plants” 

See if your child wants to climb or balance on the log while exploring it. Encourage them to count as they gallop or roll alongside the log to informally use non-standard measurement (their paces or rotations) and gauge the length of the log. Children using mobility devices such as wheelchairs can use off-road modifications such as tracks added to their chair. Funding may be sought from foundations focused on adaptive sports equipment. 




Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 107(3), 251–271. 

Becker, D. R., McClelland, M. M., Loprinzi, P., & Trost, S. G. (2014). Physical activity, self-regulation, and early academic achievement in preschool children. Early Education & Development, 25(1), 56–70. 

Boere, K., Lloyd, K., Binsted, G., & Krigolson, O. E. (2023). Exercising is good for the brain but exercising outside is potentially better. Scientific Reports, 13(1), 1140. 

Cabell, S. Q., & Hwang, H. (2020). Building content knowledge to boost comprehension in the primary grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S99–S107. 

Cameron-Faulkner, Thea, & Gattis, J. (2018). Responding to nature: Natural environments improve parent-child communication. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 59, 9–15. 

Cartwright, K. B., Taboada Barber, A., & Archer, C. J. (2022). What’s the difference? Contributions of lexical ambiguity, reading comprehension, and executive functions to math word problem solving in linguistically diverse 3rd to 5th graders. Scientific Studies of Reading, 26(6), 565–584. 

Catts, H. W., Adlof, S. M., & Weismer, S. E. (2006). Language deficits in poor comprehenders: A case for the simple view of reading. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49(2), 278–293. 

Cho, H. J., Jung, S., Lee, S. E., Jo, J. H., & Miller, E. (2023). Young children’s self-control moderates the relationship between risky outdoor play and injury experiences in naturalistic settings. Early Child Development and Care, 1–16. 

Christiansen, L., Beck, M. M., Bilenberg, N., Wienecke, J., Astrup, A., & Lundbye-Jensen, J. (2019). Effects of exercise on cognitive performance in children and adolescents with ADHD: potential mechanisms and evidence-based recommendations. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(6), 841. 

Fitzpatrick, C., McKinnon, R. D., Blair, C. B., & Willoughby, M. T. (2014). Do preschool executive function skills explain the school readiness gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children?Learning and Instruction, 30, 25–31. 

Foster, M. E., Anthony, J. L., Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. H. (2015). Processes in the development of mathematics in kindergarten children from Title 1 schools. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 140, 56–73. 

Gjicali, K., Astuto, J., & Lipnevich, A. A. (2019). Relations among language comprehension, oral counting, and numeral knowledge of ethnic and racial minority young children from low-income communities. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 46, 5–19. 

Hansen Sandseter, E. B., Kleppe, R., & Ottesen Kennair, L. E. (2023). Risky play in children’s emotion regulation, social functioning, and physical health: an evolutionary approach. International Journal of Play, 1-13. 

Hjetland, H. N., Lervåg, A., Lyster, S.-A. H., Hagtvet, B. E., Hulme, C., & Melby-Lervåg, M. (2019). Pathways to reading comprehension: A longitudinal study from 4 to 9 years of age. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(5), 751–763. 

Hudson, Kesha N., Haley M. Ballou, and Michael T. Willoughby. (2021) Improving motor competence skills in early childhood has corollary benefits for executive function and numeracy skills. Developmental Science, 24(4), e13071. 

Language and Reading Research Consortium (2017). Oral language and listening comprehension: Same or different constructs? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60(5), 1273–1284. 

Language and Reading Research Consortium. (2015). The dimensionality of language ability in young children. Child Development, 86(6), 1948–1965. 

Mayer, D., Sodian, B., Koerber, S., & Schwippert, K. (2014). Scientific reasoning in elementary school children: Assessment and relations with cognitive abilities. Learning and Instruction, 29, 43–55. 

Mulser, L., & Moreau, D. (2023). Effect of acute cardiovascular exercise on cerebral blood flow: A systematic review. Brain Research, 148355. 

O’Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J. (2019). How much knowledge is too little? When a lack of knowledge becomes a barrier to comprehension. Psychological Science, 30(9), 1344–1351. 

Owen Van Horne, A. J., Curran, M., Cook, S. W., Cole, R., & McGregor, K. K. (2023). Teaching little kids big sentences: A randomized controlled trial showing that children with DLD respond to complex syntax intervention embedded within the context of preschool/kindergarten science instruction. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 00, 1– 19. 

Ribner, A. D., Ahmed, S. F., Miller-Cotto, D., & Ellis, A. (2023). The role of executive function in shaping the longitudinal stability of math achievement during early elementary grades. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 64, 84–93. 

Siler, S., Klahr, D., Magaro, C., Willows, K., & Mowery, D. (2010). Predictors of transfer of experimental design skills in elementary and middle school children. In Intelligent Tutoring Systems: 10th International Conference, ITS 2010, Pittsburgh, PA, USA, June 14-18, 2010, Proceedings, Part II 10 (pp. 198-208). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. 

Storch, S. A., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2002). Oral language and code-related precursors to reading: Evidence from a longitudinal structural model. Developmental Psychology, 38(6), 934–947. 

Willoughby, M., Hudson, K., Hong, Y., & Wylie, A. (2021). Improvements in motor competence skills are associated with improvements in executive function and math problem-solving skills in early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 57, 1463–1470. 

Willoughby, M. T., Wylie, A. C., & Catellier, D. J. (2018). Testing the association between physical activity and executive function skills in early childhood. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 44, 82–89. 



Read more…

Using multiple representations (e.g., pictures, colors, symbols, written texts, gestures) can drastically help learning computational thinking in young children. In this blog post, doctoral candidate Slki Lim will describe her experiences with supporting young children to use low-tech items and multiple representations to learn computational thinking skills.


By Slki N. Lim

Slki N. Lim is a doctoral candidate in Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies computational thinking in STEM education for young children, focusing on how children learn using various types of technology. She’s also interested in designing hands-on computational thinking activities for young children from diverse backgrounds and teachers to foster equitable engagement and create better learning opportunities.

Computational thinking (CT), derived from computer science, has now been actively discussed in the field of education overall, often involving computer programming. Despite national attention on CT and the countless endeavors to tie CT into school curricula, teachers have received relatively little or limited teacher preparation on what CT is and what it entails for student learning (Israel et al., 2015; Jeong & Kim, 2017; Magen-Nagar & Firstater, 2019; Xie et al., 2017). It was mainly understood as a part of computer programming (i.e., coding) and taught by involving learners in the context related to programming, which learners with little to no prior experience cannot approach easily. Teaching children with no prior experience in CT through computer programming-related activities may even more drastically marginalize who have been already historically underrepresented in STEM education (e.g., female, minority students, English as second language learners, and children with disabilities).

Unplugged CT learning—a CT instructional strategy that does not require computer use—is a powerful way to bridge local classrooms and computer programming for young children! It has been actively studied and applied to classrooms with support from teachers. Unplugged CT learning is designed in a way to use hands-on learning involving multiple representations of information. Children can use multiple representations as the different ways to represent their ideas or understandings. (Some examples of multiple representations can be pictures, colors, symbols, verbal/written texts, gestures, and embodied movements). One great example is using real-world concrete materials, like having children make a peanut butter sandwich while having them think about step-by-step processes. These unplugged approaches can even encourage children to use those other representations like pictures, colors, symbols, written texts, gestures, and embodied movements. Research has shown that using multiple representations for learning has many advantages. For computational thinking learning in young children, multiple representations,

(1) allow children to try out as many tools they can use as possible to solve a task (and later can be connected to switching over from one type of representation to other representation types)

(2) providing adaptations to the environment, materials, and guidance you offer to encourage children’s active participation and decision making in their own learning

(3) make CT easier to approach by offering foundational, real-life experiences

(4) help young children actively develop fine motor skills and cognitive skills

(5) have children freely explore solutions and ideas about tasks that typically do not require a single correct answer

(6) function as a great building block to enter into the world of computer science

Combining unplugged CT learning and the use of multiple representations – particularly for younger children - can engage children in CT skills (e.g., collaboration; understanding and learning abstract concepts/skills using concrete manipulatives; increased engagement).

One of the most common designs of unplugged CT learning activities is using toy robots and having children navigate the toy robot’s moving path. To successfully complete this task, children brainstorm ideas to solve a problem, manipulate the toy robot’s direction, think from the perspective of the toy robot, and think from the toy robot’s perspective. It can be challenging when children first try to figure out how to operate the toy robot, but what’s noticeable is that they become active learners in the scene. Furthermore, their attention span lasts longer; they actively engage in the problem; they don’t get frustrated easily from failing; they communicate and often collaborate with peers; and they find errors and fix them. Studies describe involving hands-on, real-world, concrete manipulatives and their connections to sensory systems and later learning (e.g., Carbonneau et al., 2013; Kwon & Capraro, 2021; National Research Council, 2001). Having children feel, touch, move, write, draw, see, and think with concrete tools certainly encourages them to engage in CT learning which can be abstract and helps them iteratively refine their designed solutions to a given problem. Another great thing is that such tasks typically do not require a single correct answer, thereby encouraging children to explore multiple solutions.

To create meaningful unplugged CT learning, prior studies (in collaboration with teachers) identified key strategies for considering meaningful and effective instructions, particularly for young children, including children with disabilities (e.g., Israel et al., 2015).

  • Provide explicit instructions to children (e.g., step-by-step demonstrations for children to follow the guidance and build foundational skills).
  • Prompt children to use multiple ways to communicate (e.g., gestures, sounds, colors, symbols, written texts, communication boards, etc.).
  • Provide a variety of tangible, manipulable materials to play with, but be mindful of their size. If too small, children may experience difficult times operating/using them.
  • Embed tasks into real-world situations.
  • Encourage children to collaborate with peers.

So, what is an example CT task we can work on with young children? Here, I share my experience with a 5-year-old boy, Brandon (pseudonym). Brandon is a boy who is quiet but actively observing and learning everything happening around him, including verbal and written language and directions.

  • Task: Create a story of the toy robot’s journey from a starting point to a destination.
  • Materials: A grid mat, a toy robot, papers, colored pens, colored papers, play dough, foil, and other materials for crafting work
  • What we learned:
    • Brandon was able to successfully generate a story of the toy robot’s journey (the robot had a home where it could stay safe, and the robot had to eat a donut which is Brandon’s favorite snack. Then, the robot had to come back home without getting caught by a green/pink scary slimy monster.)11129420272?profile=RESIZE_584x
    • Brandon successfully operated/manipulated the toy robot in the way that he wanted to operate it after several attempts using various representation methods.
    • He verbally talked to himself, used two right fingers to follow the toy robot’s paths; moved around and rotated the grid mat to see where the toy robot was facing; modeled the movements of the toy robot and followed it to see how many cells he needed to move the toy robot; and used different colored papers to discriminate directional arrow symbols to manipulate/code the robot.
    • His attention span lasted the whole time until he completed the task.
    • Peers collaborated (and helped each other) when Brandon was stuck figuring out one of the directional arrow codes he needed (symbol).
    • Brandon learned from and collaborated with his peers. By the end of the activity, he was able to generate his own story independently and found errors and fixed them correctly.
  • Challenges Brandon experienced:
    • Perspective-taking (understanding and thinking from the perspective of the toy robot)
    • Directions (discriminating directions – left & right) – He experienced the most difficulty using the symbolic (written type – arrow codes) representations.
    • Reading/recognizing symbols that are abstract such as the directional arrows of the toy robot
    • Clicking the toy robot’s arrows as the robot was small for young children who are developing fine motor skills
  • What I found helpful in supporting Brandon:
    • Letting him explore various ways such as trying out operating the robot’s directions
    • Moving around to fit his perspective to the robot’s perspective
    • Using both hands to put one hand on one cell where the robot stayed while moving the other hand following the robot’s path/direction
    • Having a peer as a collaborative learning partner to brainstorm ideas and explore solutions together

All these kinds of activities can be designed WITHOUT toy robots if there’s nothing available!

So, how would you design your activity to introduce computational thinking to your children who are eager to explore computational thinking? J  


Carbonneau, K. K., Marley, S. M., & Selig, J. P. (2013). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of teaching mathematics with concrete manipulatives. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 380-400.

Israel, M., Wherfel, Q. M., Pearson, J., Shehab, S., & Tapia, T. (2015). Empowering K–12 students with disabilities to learn computational thinking and computer programming. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 48(1), 45-53.

Jeong, H. I., & Kim, Y. (2017). The acceptance of computer technology by teachers in early childhood education. Interactive Learning Environments25(4), 496-512.

Kwon, H., & Capraro, M. M. (2021). Nurturing Problem Posing in Young Children: Using Multiple Representation within Students’ Real-World Interest. International Electronic Journal of Mathematics Education, 16(3), 1-12.  

Magen-Nagar, N., & Firstater, E. (2019). The obstacles to ICT implementation in the kindergarten environment: Kindergarten teachers’ beliefs. Journal of Research in Childhood Education33(2), 165-179.

National Research Council. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Xie, K., Kim, M. K., Cheng, S.-L., & Luthy, N. C. (2017). Teacher professional development through digital content evaluation. Education Tech Research Dev 65(4), 1067–1103.

Read more…

There are many evidence-based practices (EBPs) that can be used to support development and increase access and participation in STEM learning for young autistic* children. Yet, research suggests that EBPs are not always used in practice by EI/EC/ECSE practitioners. These resources can help close that gap and support providers to embed EBPs into their STEM learning routines and activities.


By Victoria Waters, M.Ed. 

Victoria Waters, M.Ed. is an Educational Consultant at UNC’s FPG Child Development Institute. She works on various autism projects, developing evidence-based practice modules and resources, and STEMIE, developing resources and creating content for social media. Her research interests include autism and developmental disabilities and early intervention and special education. 


By Jessica Amsbary PhD

Jessica Amsbary, PhD is a Technical Assistance Specialist at UNC’s FPG Child Development Institute and Program Coordinator for the Master in Education for Experienced Teachers in Early Childhood Intervention and Family Support at the School of Education at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research interests involve the development and implementation of effective and inclusive early intervention resources and support for young children with disabilities and their families. She has a doctorate in Applied Developmental Sciences and Special Education from UNC Chapel Hill, a M.S. in Early Childhood Development with a specialization in infancy from Erikson Institute, and a B.A. degree in Psychology from the University of Notre Dame.


By Ann Sam, PhD

Ann Sam is a senior research scientist and leads the Research & Evaluation Division at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Her research and professional development interests are rooted in her direct experience as a public-school teacher working in preschool and kindergarten classrooms with students with autism. The primary goal of her work is to increase awareness and use of evidence-based interventions and resources designed to improve outcomes for students with autism. At the heart of her work is ensuring this access extends to professionals in underserved communities—those with fewer resources available for extensive in-person training and support. To address this goal, Dr. Sam's research and professional development activities focus on two primary areas: 1) using novel technologies to provide interventions to students and professional development to educators; and 2) rigorously researching professional development materials and models for educators to determine effective ways to increase successful implementation of evidence-based practices with students with autism.

Autism is a lifelong developmental difference that includes diverse ways of experiencing and expressing social-communication and repetitive behaviors/interests (Baumer & Frueh, 2021; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Early detection, diagnosis and early intervention may support development and learning (National Institute of Mental Health, 2022). In fact, there are a number of evidence-based practices (EBPs), such as visual supports, reinforcement, modeling, task analysis, and prompting, that can support STEM learning for young autistic children (Sam et al., 2022). Publicly available resources (for example, AFIRM and AFIRM for Toddlers) are available to assist in using these EBPs with young children.

What is AFIRM? What is AFIRM for Toddlers?

Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules (AFIRM) are designed to support practitioners learn the step-by-step process of planning for, using, andmonitoring11027277060?profile=RESIZE_180x180 the implementation of EBPs with autistic learners from birth to 22 years of age (Steinbrenner et al., 2020).  AFIRM provides free and easy access to resources to support identifying what EBPs should be used to increase the autistic learner's skills and how to implement a specific EBP or EBPs.



In partnership with the ECTA Center, AFIRM recently launched AFIRM for Toddlers. The modules and resources included in AFIRM for Toddlers are designed to support early intervention providers working with early care and education providers and families of an autistic learner from 1-3 years of age. The modules support EI providers to review the basics of an EBP, as well as to coach caregivers in the step-by-step process of planning for, using, and monitoring the implementation of an EBP with an autistic toddler in daily routines and activities.


How Can I use AFIRM to Cultivate STEM Learning?

AFIRM offers many free modules and resources that can be used to cultivate STEM learning for autistic learners (e.g., Augmentative & Alternative Communication, Modeling, Prompting, Reinforcement, Task Analysis, Technology-Aided Instruction & Intervention, and Time Delay) and many of these are available specifically for early intervention providers working with toddlers with autism and their caregivers (e.g. Parent Implemented Interventions in the Home Setting, Naturalistic Intervention in the Child Care Setting, Prompting, Reinforcement, Visual Supports, and Behavior Supports for Toddlers).  A great one to get started with is Visual Supports because it can be used in a variety of ways to support learning. Visual Supports is any “visual display that supports the learner engaging in a desired behavior or skills independent of additional prompts” (Steinbrenner et al., 2020), in other words, cues that are used to provide the autistic learner with information.

Visual supports can be:

  • arranging the environment and/or creating visual boundaries,
  • modifying or adding to activity items, such as creating a prop box or adding labels
  • using visual schedules with pictures or three-dimensional objects
  • using timers and/or choice boards

11027278870?profile=RESIZE_400xUsing visual supports to support child engagement in STEM learning opportunities might look like arranging the environment in a specific way or creating visual boundaries that allow the autistic learner to focus on the STEM activity. This might include dimming lights, reducing noise and distractions, and covering materials not needed for the STEM learning activity. Consider other sensory needs the autistic child may have when arranging the environment.

Visual supports in STEM learning might also include creating/using visual schedules or visual directions, such as a First/Then Board, to increase understanding of the STEM11027278079?profile=RESIZE_400x content or the activity. With adult guidance, this can help children understand expectations and STEM concepts, such as sequencing, causation, and conditionals. For example, the visual of the bubble wand and bubbles can help children understand the wand comes first, then the bubbles (sequencing). Dipping the wand in the bubble mix and then blowing is what causes the bubbles (causation). And that there will be no bubbles unless we use the wand and dip it in the bubble mix (conditional). Be sure to include the preferences/interests of the autistic learner if creating these materials to increase their engagement in the STEM activity.


11027279487?profile=RESIZE_400xAnother way to use visual supports to increase an autistic learner’s engagement and participation in a STEM activity is by modifying activity items and using labels of items/STEM vocabulary.  This could include creating a story prop box for a book, adding a colored border to key words, creating visual cue/prompt cards of key STEM vocabulary, or simplifying vocabulary.

Other potential visual supports that can support autistic learners are timers and choice boards embedded into the STEM learning activity.


Using Visual Supports to Cultivate Learning about Patterns in Nature

Think about the various ways visual supports can be used to cultivate a STEM learning experiences, such as learning about patterns that naturally occur, for an autistic learner.

Goal: Notices and/or Describes symmetry in chunks of information; Duplicates, Identifies, and/or Recognizes a chunk of information that repeats. 


  1. Read and have a storybook conversation about Patterns Outside (Math Every Day) by Daniel Nunn & Rebecca Rissman or a similar book about patterns in nature
  2. Go on a nature walk, observe trees, leaves, tree bark, insects, flowers, animal coverings and other things that have patterns
  3. Gather a variety of fallen leaves, pinecones, and/or dead insects
  4. Create an ABAB pattern with gathered items, such as leaf(A), pinecone(B), leaf (A), pinecone (B), ask the child to add the next item in the pattern or to duplicate the pattern
  5. Encourage the child to create their own patterns with the gathered items.

Visual Support Strategies:

1. Add picture cue cards of nature items, simplify text, add a colored border to highlight key STEM vocabulary, create a storybook prop box filled with items like those in the book, arrange to have a quiet reading space.11027280284?profile=RESIZE_400x

2. Walk in the evening when the light is not as bright and animals might be quieter. If possible, map out the nature walk with visual cues to help point out and label trees, tree bark, flowers, fallen leaves, fallen pinecones, etc.…


3. Use a First/Then Board to demonstrate visual directions/steps in creating a pattern.


4. Use a timer or other visual to show the length of the activity. A First/Then Board can also be used as a visual schedule for transitioning into/out of the activity.


Resources to Use with Young Autistic Learners

Be sure to check out AFIRM for more information about evidence-based adaptations and teaching practices that can be used to support development and STEM learning for young autistic learners. AFIRM also has a variety of supplemental resources that are free to download and use from a Parent’s Guide to a Tip Sheet for Professionals, from individual resources to a whole EBP Brief packet.

And if you like the Patterns in Nature activities above, be sure to check out STEMIE’s Exploration Ideas & Adaptations for Patterns in Nature.

*While AFIRM currently uses identity first language and the term autism in our materials, some of our modules and resources reflect person first language and the term autism spectrum disorder. AFIRM acknowledges that language changes and autistic individuals may have varying language preferences. AFIRM is doing their best to honor those preferences in their materials.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Baumer, N., & Frueh, J. (2021). What is neurodiversity? Harvard Health Publishing.

Dees, R., Sam, A., Waters, V., & AFIRM Team. (2023). Visual Supports for Toddlers. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Focused Intervention Modules and Resources.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2022). Autism Spectrum Disorder. (NIH Publication No. 22-MH-8084). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health.

Sam, A., & AFIRM Team. (2015). Visual Supports. Chapel Hill, NC: National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, FPG Child Development Center, University of North Carolina.

Sam, A., Waters, V., Dees, R., & AFIRM Team. (2022). Selecting an Evidence-Based Practice: NCAEP’s Domain Matrix. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules.

Steinbrenner, J. R., Hume, K., Odom, S. L., Morin, K. L., Nowell, S. W., Tomaszewski, B.,
Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N. S., Yücesoy-Özkan, S., & Savage, M. N. (2020). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team.

STEMIE. (2021). A Guide for General Adaptations for Storybook Conversations [PDF]. STEMIE.    

STEMIE. (2023). Visual Cue of a First/Then Board [PDF]. STEMIE.

Waters, V. (2023). Visual Map of Things to See on a Nature Walk [PDF]. STEMIE.

Waters, V., & Harradine, C. (2022). Exploration Ideas & Adaptations for Patterns in Nature [PDF]. STEMIE.



Read more…

Do you know video demonstrations can be a great tool to enhance practitioners' practice?  Check out this blog post to learn more!

9877129668?profile=RESIZE_180x180By Elica Sharifnia, PhD. 

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Marsico Institute for Early Learning at the University of Denver

Hsiuwen Yang's headshotBy Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Video demonstrations are commonly used to support pre-service and in-service practitioners’ observations and reflections (Marsh & Mitchell, 2013). Research has demonstrated that when professional development is provided through the effective use of videos, it can increase teachers’ understanding of teaching practices and foster reflection  about their own practices (Major & Watson, 2018). This blog post uses video clips as well as a list of reflective questions to help practitioners identify ways to promote STEM learning for all children and reflect on how they can be applied in their own classrooms.

Video Description:

The video clip shows how two preschoolers in an inclusive early childhood classroom are engaging in a STEM learning experience at center time with a STEMIE team member, Jaclyn. She is supporting the children’s understanding of the Physical Science concept of force and motion. The child on the left hand side of the video typically enjoys playing in the block center. One of the main IEP goals for this child is to support his communication skills during play with peers and adults.

Discussion Guide:
As you watch the video the first time, think about what you notice about the children’s thinking, engagement, and the adult scaffolding.

  • What do you notice about the children’s understanding of force and motion as they engage with the materials? (Pay attention to children’s actions/behaviors and verbal responses.)
  • How does the adult scaffold the children's understanding of force and motion during this experience? What are some examples?
  • How does the adult foster inclusion in this experience?
  • How does the adult support the child’s IEP goal?
  • How would you incorporate adaptations in this experience?
  • How could you scaffold children’s understanding of force and motion and participation in STEM learning experiences in your own practice?

Note: Scaffold refers to providing “prompts and hints to support the learner and then gradually withdraw these supports as the learner performs with increased independence”(Bodrova & Leong, 2012)


Major, L., & Watson, S. (2018). Using video to support in-service teacher professional development: The state of the field, limitations and possibilities. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 27(1), 49–68.
Marsh, B., & Mitchell, N. (2014). The role of video in teacher professional development. Teacher Development, 18(3), 403–417.
Read more…

STEAM is a vehicle for children's social emotion development. Read the blog post and learn how to suppor children's problem solving skills within STEAM learning activities.


Dr. Yvette Mere-Cook works as a Child Development Demonstration Lecturer and Preschool Program Coordinator at the Early Childhood Lab at the Center for Child and Family Studies at the University of California at Davis.  Dr. Mere-Cook teaches courses in early childhood education and draws from her 20+ years as a pediatric occupational therapist in hopes of preparing and inspiring students to pursue work that contributes to opportunities and access for children with disabilities. Her research and service pursuits focus on investigating ways to close the opportunity gap for young children’s engagement in STEM learning, including embedding the Engineering Design Process and teaching the steps of the problem-solving process within STEM contexts within inclusive preschool classrooms.

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang is a technical assistance specialist and research investigator at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, UNC-Chapel Hill. She received her master’s degree in Occupational Therapy from the National Taiwan University and her PhD degree in Special Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include early intervention, family-centered practices, parent coaching, inclusive practices, and social-emotional development.


Dr. Jessica K. Hardy received her Ph.D. in early childhood special education from Vanderbilt University and her M.Ed. and B.A. from the University of Florida.  She taught in Portland, OR as a Head Start teacher and an early childhood special education teacher.  Jessica’s primary research interests are evidence-based instructional practices and early childhood coaching and professional.

Within high quality inclusive early childhood programs, practitioners intentionally design environments and instructional practices to support young children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development (DEC, 2014).  Learning Areas in the classroom often include open ended materials that invite children’s engagement in concepts related to science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Within these STEAM learning opportunities, practitioners embed instructional practices that promote children’s emotional competency, friendship skills, and conflict resolution.  One such practice centers on the problem-solving process.   

According to Diamond (2019, p. 108), problem solving consists of  

“a complex set of skills in which children demonstrate the ability to (a) recognize the occurrence of a problem, (b) seek and implement solutions to solve the problem, and  (c) engage in reflection in order to determine the effectiveness of the applied solution.”   

For young children at risk for or with disabilities, learning, engaging, and applying the problem-solving process within STEAM Learning Areas could positively impact social development and self-determination (Cote et al., 2014). Research suggests that direct instruction with the use of visual-based supports (e.g., picture cards, posters) promotes the learning of the foundations of the problem-solving process with preschool children with disabilities (Diamond, 2012; 2017). 

The use of visual-based supports as tools for direct instruction for children with disabilities is often used by teachers to address behaviors that impact learning (Rhodes, 2014). As an early childhood multi-tiered system of support or MTSS, the Pyramid Model for Promoting Social and Emotional Competence for Infants and Young Children (NCPMI, 2022) provides practitioners solution kits to address a number of challenging behaviors by focusing on the application of the problem-solving process. Through use of pictures within solution cards, the Pyramid Model offers teachers a research-based intervention for classroom-wide implementation (Hemmeter et al., 2014; NCPMI, 2022).   

The soft skills of collaboration, cooperation, empathy, and problem-solving are intertwined within early STEM learning experiences. Therefore, they provide a natural context for promoting both emotional competency and social development. The use of Solution Kits allows for all young children to access the problem solving process to resolve conflicts with children by providing them with visual supports to arrive at a solution. Take the following vignette as an example of how a teacher can use the Solution Kits to support children’s social emotional skills within an inclusive STEAM context.   10846921487?profile=RESIZE_400x

 How Solution Kits Are Used in the Classroom:  In our inclusive preschool classroom, we have the solution kits hanging throughout Learning Areas for children to access and for engaged adults to offer children when conflicts arise. For example, Tommy and Jill were creating structures within the Block Area. Tommy was building a tower and Jill constructed a road for her school bus. As Tommy placed the final block on top of his tower, Jill grabbed the block and said “This is mine!”  Tommy’s tower came crashing down and he began to cry. The Lead Teacher came over and began to engage Tommy and Jill in the problem-solving process. Using a calm tone, the teacher began to listen to the children and acknowledged both of their big feelings and emotions. The teacher then grabbed the Solution Kit Cards and began to ask the children, “How can we solve this problem?”. Jill began to scroll through the pictures. Tommy became interested in helping Jill decide how they could resolve their conflict. In the end, they decided to work together to build a city that included a large apartment building as well as a road and ramps for buses.   

















Division of Early Childhood (June 6, 2014).  Position Statement – Role of Special Instruction in Early Intervention.  Retrieved from 

Cote, D. L., Jones, V. L., Barnett, C., Pavelek, K., Nguyen, H., & Sparks, S. L. (2014). Teaching Problem Solving Skills to Elementary Age Students with Autism. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 49(2), 189–199. 

Diamond, L. (2012). Problem solving interventions: Impact on young students with developmental disabilities (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database. (ISBN 1267568003) 

Diamond, L. L. (2017). Problem solving in the early years. Intervention in School and Clinic, 53, 220–223. doi:10.1177/1053451217712957 

Diamond, L. L., & Hsiao, Y.-J. (2019). Picture-Based Situation Cards to Support Problem-Solving Skill Development for Young Children With Disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 52(2), 107–115., Anderson, Wimmer, 2021;  

Fox, L. (n.d.)  Program Practices for Promoting the Social Development of Young Children and Addressing Challenging Behavior 

Hemmeter, M. L., Snyder, P. A., Fox, L., & Algina, J. (2016). Evaluating the Implementation of the Pyramid Model for Promoting Social-Emotional Competence in Early Childhood Classrooms. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 36(3), 133–146. 

Lentini, R., Anderson, R., & Wimmer. A. (2021).  We Can Be Problem Solvers!  National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations. 

National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (2021, January 31).  NCPMI Fact Sheet. 

Rhodes, C. (2014). Do Social Stories help to decrease disruptive behaviour in children with autistic spectrum disorders? A review of the published literature. Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 18(1), 35–50. 

Read more…

Project Approach and STEM Learning for ALL

Read the blog post and learn how to use project approach to support inclusive early STEM learning! 

By Sallee Beneke

Project work is an approach to learning that can support inclusion of diverse learners. A project is an in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about, usually undertaken by a group of children within a class. Unlike many teacher-initiated components of the curriculum, the goal of a project is for children to learn more about a high interest topic, rather than to find right answers to questions posed by a teacher. It capitalizes on children’s natural interest and motivation and the satisfaction that comes from becoming an expert on a topic. It also provides them a common focus.

Projects are in-depth investigations that are typically about six to eight weeks long. The course of the investigation is driven by children’s natural interest and motivation. Similar to the scientific inquiry cycle (Worth & Grollman, 2003, p. 19), children begin with a set of questions about the topic, predict or make hypotheses of possible answers to their questions, proceed to collect data by making observations and engaging in investigations, and describe/document their findings.

Over the course of a project children act as researchers or explorers that investigate a topic first-hand by examining artifacts, interviewing experts, doing field work, and researching in books and online. Children represent their learning in a variety of ways and teachers can track their growing understanding of the topic by observing and documenting these representations. For example, a teacher might note that at the beginning of a project on butterflies, a child draws the child’s body as a single shape. But, over time she can observe increased depth in the child’s understanding when the drawings begin to include a head, abdomen, and thorax. A rich classroom environment can provide many opportunities for children to represent their growing understanding of a topic (e.g., through their dramatic play in the housekeeping or block areas, conversations). Planning of next steps in an investigation is negotiated between the teacher and the children. One question leads to another, so a major role of the teacher in project work is to anticipate the experiences and opportunities that will satisfy children’s curiosity about the topic and provoke further interest.

Using project approach in early STEM. learning supports inclusion because it is collaborative rather than competitive, and it emphasizes children’s abilities, rather than their disabilities. As children work together to find out about a topic and create group constructions that represent their knowledge, community is strengthened and IEP and IFSP goals can be met effectively through meaningful, naturalistic opportunities. It also increases opportunities for teachers to adapt activities for a range of abilities, reduces the need for guidance techniques, and has a positive impact on play levels (Beneke & Ostrosky, 2015).

Selecting a useful topic for projects is an important key to getting project work started. Abstract themes (e.g., feelings, the five senses, nutrition, or weather) are intangible and will not support project work. Concrete things (e.g., leaf) or groups of things (e.g., forest) that children can explore with all their senses are more useful. Topics that meet the following criteria are likely to be successful:

  1. The topic is directly observable in the children’s own environments (real world).
  2. It is within the experiences of most children in the group.
  3. Firsthand direct investigation is feasible and not potentially dangerous.
  4. Local resources (field sites and experts) are favorable and readily accessible.
  5. It has good potential for representation in a variety of media (e.g., role play, construction, writing, multidimensional graphic organizers).
  6. Parental participation and contributions are likely, and parents can become involved.
  7. It is sensitive to local culture, as well as culturally appropriate in general.
  8. It is potentially interesting to many of the children or represents an interest that adults consider worthy of developing in children.
  9. It is related to curriculum goals and standards of the school or district.
  10. It provides ample opportunity to apply basic skills (depending on the age of the children).
  11. It is optimally specific—not too narrow and not too broad (e.g., a study of the teacher’s own dog or “buttons” at the narrow end, and the topic of “music” or “the seasons” at the broad end). It is interesting to the teacher. (Beneke, Ostrosky, & Katz, 2019).


Beneke, S. & Ostrosky, M. M. (2015) Effects of the project approach on preschoolers with diverse abilities. Infants & Young Children.

Beneke, S., Ostrosky, M. M., & Katz, L. (2019). The Project Approach for All Learners. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Worth, Karen & Grollman, Sharon. (2003). Worms, shadows, and whirlpools: Science in the early childhood classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Read more…

“When I walk into a room, I’m Black. When I walk into a room, I’m a woman. When I walk into a room, I’m a Black woman. Different people process these things differently. Historically Black people have been perceived as less intelligent, and even though physics is considered an elite intellectual pursuit, there are some who believe that Black physicists are in the field or in their jobs only because of affirmative action or because of luck. … Add to that my disability, and some have questioned whether I have the intellectual capacity to be in physics.” – Dr. Renee Horton, NASA engineer

Chih-ing lim's headshotby
Chih-Ing Lim,  PhD.
Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Professor Kimberle Crenshaw first coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989 to provide a frame to describe and address the overlapping connection of social categories such as race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and how social injustices, discrimination and oppression can come with each and every part of a person’s multiple identities. Within the field of STEM, women, Black and Hispanic people, as well as individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in more advanced STEM courses in high school (Office of Civil Rights) as well as in STEM careers (Martinez & Gayfield, 2019; Office of Civil Rights, 2018; Burgstahler, n.d.). Individuals with disabilities who have intersecting identities such as being a person of color, being a woman, living in poverty or in rural areas are most underrepresented in STEM fields (Burgstahler, n.d.).

We would like to ask you to take a moment to explore the following resources developed by Dr. Renee Horton. These resources share more about her lived experiences and we hope will help you to center intersectionality within your own practice:

  • Read her blog post (about 2-minute read), The disability is there, but I belong (, which explains how the intersectionality of her race, gender, and disability has impacted her career navigation in STEM.
  • Watch an 8-minute video where she shares the challenges and supports she has faced as a Black woman with disabilities in STEM


Burgstahler, S. (n.d.). Increasing the Representation of People with Disabilities in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Martinez, A. & Gayfield, A. (2019). The Intersectionality of Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin in the STEM Workforce. U.S. Census Bureau.

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2018). 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection: STEM Course Taking.

Credit: Thanks to Dr Renee Horton for giving us permission to share her blog post and video.


Read more…

Infusing Family Culture in STEM Learning

Read the blog post written by Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang, and learn how to infuse family culture in STEM learning opportunities.

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

By Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

I have lived in the United States for almost eight years, and I am always proud of my cultural heritage. Throughout these eight years, whenever I see my culture being reflected positively in the community, in my workplace, or through mass media, I feel a sense of belonging.

We all need to feel a sense of belonging and positive affirmation. As a researcher and practitioner in the field of early intervention and early childhood special education, I have always been aware of the importance of building a sense of belonging for children and their families . Certainly, creating a sense of belonging is not only displaying photos of children and families from various cultural backgrounds but also embedding children’s experiences and family traditions into the teaching practices.

Food is a great way to provide connections to different cultures and family traditions. For example, I grew up eating congee (粥) or rice porridge and Dan Bing (i.e., Taiwanese egg pancake roll; 蛋餅) for breakfast. My family and I love having hot pot every holiday and special occasion.

In this blog post, I will describe an activity that could use food and pretend play as a means to support children’s STEM learning. At the end of the blog post, I will also introduce a couple of STEM storybooks about AAPI culture and food.

Making play dough dumplings

Dumplings are something I often make and eat with my family. Our dumplings use a flour-based dough and we use cabbage, ground meat, and chives that are lightly seasoned with soy sauce as the filling. We then either steam or pan fry our dumplings. There are many other types of dumplings of different shapes and sizes within Taiwanese and Chinese cultures as well as in other cultures around the world. As an occupational therapist, I love using this activity to improve children’s fine motor skills, practice bilateral coordination, and engage in STEM concepts (e.g., sequencing, counting, shape).


  • Play dough
  • A play dough rolling pin or a wooden stick
  • A Circle shape cookie cutter or the bottom of a drinking cup.
  • Ingredients (e.g., marbles, beads, small blocks)


  • Take a small amount of the dough, roll it into a sphere
  • Use the palm to press the dough down
  • Use the rolling pin to flatten the dough and make it into a circular shape (or use the cookie cutter)
  • Place the ingredients in the middle of the rolled out dough or “dumpling skin”
  • Fold the “dumpling skin” into half
  • Seal the dumpling by making creases on the top using your thumb and pointer finger

Visual pictures

Use questions and conversation to engage children in STEM learning and talk about children’s culture and family tradition

  • What food does your family like to make and eat together on special days?
  • First, we roll the dough into a ball, then we roll it to flatten it. What should we do next?
  • We have 10 friends in class and everyone would like one dumpling. How many dumplings have you made? How many more do we need?
  • What shape are you making?
  • How many beads can you put in your dumpling? How can we put more ingredients in the dumpling?
  • What else would you like to fill dumplings with?

STEM storybooks about AAPI food culture that you could consider including on your bookshelves


Luna's Yum Yum Dim Sum (Storytelling Math) 

Natasha Yim 


Luna is having Dim Sum on her birthday. She and her brothers are talking about how to share buns fairly. 

10509770088?profile=RESIZE_180x180Too Many Mangoes

Tammy Paikai

Science & Math 

Kama and Nani help their grandpa pick mangos from his giant mango tree.  After the picking, Kama and Nani share some mangoes with neighbors. 

10509777876?profile=RESIZE_180x180Ohana Means Family 

 Ilima Loomis 

 A family prepares a tasty root called Kalo for a traditional luau celebration.  

10509778880?profile=RESIZE_180x180One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale 



 A young girl tricks a greedy king to double one grain of rice every day for three years.  

10509780291?profile=RESIZE_180x180Ten Blocks to the Big Wok 

 Ying-Hwa Hu 


 Mia and her uncle Eddie travel from their apartment to a restaurant in Chinatown. They see many things in Chinatown. 

10509781478?profile=RESIZE_180x180The Ugly Vegetables

Grace Lin 


A little girl and her mother grow vegetables in their gardens while their neighbors grow colorful flowers.  


Kai Goes to the Farmers Market in Hawaii 

Catherine Toth Fox 

Kai ad his mother buy food grown in Hawaii from the farmers.

Read more…

Have you heard of storybook walk? Read the article and find out!

Katherine Mansfield's headshot

By Katherine Mansfield

About the author: 

Katherine Mansfield is a second-year speech-language pathology student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been a part of the STEMIE Storybook Team since October 2021. Her professional experience includes graduate internships where she works with children of all abilities to diagnose and treat communication and feeding disorders. Katherine is always eager to learn more about how to make a child’s therapy goals functional for them at home, given their family and home situation, preferences, skills, and current areas of need. She enjoys brainstorming ways to incorporate literacy into the speech therapy sessions she provides. She received her undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at North Carolina State University in May 2020.

Reading books about a variety of topics not only stimulates a child’s language development, but it also exposes them to basic concepts that are useful and meaningful in their day-to-day lives and future. For example, when reading or listening to a book about the solar system, a child can learn new vocabulary (e.g., the name of planets, the sun) which is beneficial for their language development and for their emerging interest and knowledge about science. They may become curious when they see the Sun and share what they know about it when they see it in the sky. This combination of learning about different topics, like space, and developing language skills while reading is exciting for children and overall, manageable for you to implement as their parent, teacher, caregiver, or another person in the child’s life. While exploring this variety of books, you will likely discover a new book to read at either a library, bookstore, or online resource. Here, you and your child have the opportunity to take typical book-reading to the next level. How? By engaging the child in a “storybook walk” before reading the new book together.

First, what is a storybook walk? A storybook walk is a strategy used to introduce new concepts, make creative associations and inferences, and increase interest in a new book that a child is preparing to read (Briggs & Forbes, 2011). During this storybook walk, you would “walk” the child through the book by reading the title, looking and flipping through the pages, introducing characters, making inferences about what might happen in the book, reviewing or teaching new vocabulary words, and assessing which concepts are already familiar to the child. The key to the storybook walk is increasing exposure and interest without reading the book cover to cover! appropriate adaptations, these pre-reading opportunities can be useful for children of all ages, skill levels, and who might benefit from additional support.

Using objects and visual pictures to introduce new vocabulary

Introducing vocabulary words before reading can be modified to meet the child’s current skill level and needs. For example, a child with blindness or visual impairment may require alternative means to access the information presented in a book. As part of your storybook walk for this book, you can provide a story box, a box of physical objects that are related to the story at hand. This offers a multisensory experience for the child as they learn about the book. For example, for the book  , you might include fur in the storybox to represent the fox character, so the child is able to engage with the materials using their sense of touch rather than sight. You can also pair the book with other visual adaptations such as enlarged symbols that represent the pictures, characters, and concepts presented in the book. The STEMIE Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers visual adaptations and storybox ideas for a variety of STEM books for your reference as you begin thinking about how to adapt different books to meet your child’s needs.

Offering these physical objects or picture symbols, when appropriate for the child increases not only the child’s exposure to new vocabulary words, but it increases their interest in the content at hand and their ability to engage with the book. As you do so, reinforce the new concepts and important vocabulary words. You can always revisit, revise, and verify the inferences you all made together as you pre-read the book.

Provide seating choices

If a child requires additional support to access the information presented in a storybook walk, consider strategies like flexible seating options, giving the child hands-on access to the book and materials to independently explore the content during the storybook walk, and simplifying your language to increase their motivation and confidence when learning newer concepts. Each child has a unique set of needs. The good news is that you can help meet these needs during storybook walks by using your creativity and individual expertise; you are one of the people in the child’s life that knows them best!

As you and the child(ren) in your life begin incorporating storybook walks into your reading routines, enjoy the process! It may feel awkward, at first, to talk about the book without reading it first, but it becomes more natural the more you all engage in these reading preparation exercises. An overarching strategy to remember when leading these storybook walks is flexibility. Be flexible with how you meet your child’s needs (i.e., when choosing picture symbols or physical objects to engage a child with a visual impairment) and when your plan may not go as you expected it to. Your child will see you model creativity and open-mindedness, which can encourage them to be open-minded and curious during these pre-reading and reading activities as well.

You can find a video example here. (This video was developed in collaboration with the Kansas Deaf-Blind Project and Kansas State School for the Blind.


Briggs, C., & Forbes, S. (2009). Orientation to a new book: More than a picture walk. The Reading Teacher62(8), 706-709.

Read more…

Positive Affirmations in STEM

"As his mother and educator, it is essential to build his literacy experiences through books that represent people and characters that look like him." - Marye Vance. 


Marye and her son, Winston is taking a selfie

By Marye Vance

About the author:

Marye Vance is an early childhood professional educator, researcher, and parent with over 25 years of experience working with children and families. Her professional experiences include a Preschool Teacher, Mental Health professional for children, Program Coordinator for Smart Start, Technical Assistance Provider with a Resource and Referral Agency, Program Manager for Afterschool Programs, Child Protective Services Social Worker, Community College Instructor, and currently an Instructor in Early Childhood Education and Professional Development Coordinator of Teaching-Learning Center at Durham Technical Community College. She studied Elementary Education at Elizabeth-City State University, transferred to Winston-Salem State University receiving a Bachelor of Social Work degree. She obtained a Masters of Adult Education Degree with a concentration in Distance Education from the University of Phoenix. Currently, studying a Doctor of Education specializing in Performance Improvement Leadership. Recently inducted into The National Society of Leadership and Success. She’s co-authored publications and contributor to several literacy initiatives with Duke University Hospital NICU division and Book Harvest to name a few.

It is essential to build a child's self-worth to provide confidence in education. The aspirations and interests of children, in particular black and brown boys, are grounded in their community and culture. The first seed of confidence begins at home. Parents are widely considered a crucial part of their children's educational attainment and are arguably the closest to and most knowledgeable about their children's educational experiences. Research shows that parents' involvement in schools, their parenting practices, and socialization at home have both direct and indirect implications for children's academic outcomes (Banerjee, Harrell, & Johnson, 2011; Jeynes, 2007; Smalls, 2009).

Winston is playing a globe tellurionA firm believer in each one, teach one, providing Winston with positive aspirations through STEM has indeed grounded him in becoming a person full of imagination and charm. The book "I am smart, I am blessed, I can do anything!" by Alissa Holder & Zulekha Holder-Young provides aspirations for young black and brown boys to see themselves as capable human beings. Identity as an understanding of the self sits within a psychological orientation that, according to Erikson (1950, 1968), develops an integrated and functional sense of identity, which helps to unify the various aspects of an individual's life and to provide a sense of personal meaning and direction. According to Heidelberg (2013) stated, "this view of identity is important for individuals to provide a sense of personal self and direction and is the focus of those who are interested in the way in which individuals develop self-knowledge, self-construction, and self-discovery."Winston is sitting next to a table and playing play-doh

Winston loves the outdoors and all things dinosaurs. Since the precious age of two, his interest has been in dinosaurs. His interest in dinosaurs has grown to astrology. He loves to talk about the galaxy, stars, and the moon. His adventures outdoors expand to building spaceships for the dinosaurs to take off into space. Elements of the ground, such as the dirt, trees, and tiny insects that crawl in the earth, stimulate his interest. Digging for fossils and even singing a song or two about his adventure progress his love for science.

His science exploration evolved at the age of three, mixing solutions to stirring up a roaring lava volcano. Not only is experimental learning happening, but mathematics is as well. Is there an inventor on the rise? Garrett Morgan was a repairman and business owner. He invented the three-light traffic signal in 1923. He also invented the improved sewing machine and the gas mask. Winston learns about Mr. Morgan's inventions and many others, such as Henry Thomas Sampson, Jr., an inventor, and a nuclear engineer who invented the gamma-electric cell, which is the cell used in powering cell phones, in 1971 from Patrice McLaurin’s “Have you thanked an inventor today?”.In Winston's quest to explore science, he has built a solar robot and erupted a volcano for his dinosaurs.

As his mother and educator, it is essential to build his literacy experiences through books that represent people and characters that look like him. Not only is literacy the foundation of Winston's learning process, but instilling moral character plays a vital role in early learning experiences. All children can grow and build on what they have been taught and observed in life. By understanding the importance of education, the hope is that as his interest grows, his love for being the best person he is created to be.


Banerjee, Meeta; Harrell, Zaje A T; Johnson, Deborah J.Journal of Youth and Adolescence; New York Vol. 40, Iss. 5, (May 2011): 595-605.

Siteine, A. (2013). 'Positive in their own identities?': Social studies and identity affirmation. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 48(2), 99-111. Retrieved from

Williams, A. D., Banerjee, M., Lozada-Smith, F., Lambouths, Danny, I., II, & Rowley, S. J. (2017). Black mothers' perceptions of the role of race in children's education. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79(4), 932-946. doi:

Read more…

“I can be a scientist! “

Storybook can be a powerful tool in building children's identify. Read the blog post and learn more!

Chih-ing Lim's headshot

By Chih-Ing Lim, PhD. 

Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

HsiuWen Yang's headshot

By Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation to include in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Do you know that the traffic lights were invented by a Black inventor, Garrett Morgan? I learned this and about many more Black scientists and inventors from a children’s book by Patrice McLaurin, Have you thanked an inventor today? 

Reading and discussing books that include diverse and positive representations of characters could help children find resemblances to the characters with similar backgrounds and see them as role models (Golos & Moses, 2011). Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor and author coined the phrase “Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors” to explain how critical it is for children to see themselves in the books that they read, and how they can also learn about or step into the lives of others through books. This is important for all children, especially Black or Brown children with and without disabilities, who frequently do not see themselves in children’s literature.  

Storybooks can be a powerful tool in supporting children’s STEM learning and building their STEM identity and providing a more equitable access to STEM learning opportunities. Equity in STEM education is an ongoing challenge. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights Data Collection (2018), we know that Black high schoolers are underrepresented in more advanced science and math courses, and similarly in science and engineering degree programs, and within the STEM workforce (National Science Board, 2022).  

But we as an early childhood field can change this trajectory right from the start by supporting Black children to build a positive STEM identity and a strong sense of belonging in STEM (Master et al., 2017). We have curated a list of books focused on Black pioneers and innovators in STEM or have Black characters that can offer the mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors for the children we work with: We have also created storybook conversation tip sheets for a few of the books from the list: Astro Girl (, The Snowy Day ( 

Later this month, we have a guest blogger who is an early childhood faculty and a proud mama of a 5-year old. She will share her personal experiences on how representation is so critical for her child when it comes to engaging him in books and STEM. 

If you are interested in Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s essay, it is available here:  

Read more…

Lego Blocks and Codes

Read the blog post written by Dr. Jessica Amsbary, and learn how to use blocks to foster future coding skills. 

Jessica Amsbary's headshot

Dr. Jessica Amsbary

About the authors:

Jessica Amsbary, PhD is a Technical Assistance Specialist at FPG Child Development Institute and Program Coordinator for the Master in Education for Experienced Teachers in Early Childhood Intervention and Family Support at the School of Education at UNC Chapel Hill. Her research interests involve the development and implementation of effective and inclusive early intervention resources and support for young children with disabilities and their families. She has a doctorate in Applied Developmental Sciences and Special Education from UNC Chapel Hill, a M.S. in Early Childhood Development with a specialization in infancy from Erikson Institute, and a B.A. degree in Psychology from the University of Notre Dame.

When I played with Lego Blocks as a child, I wasn’t generally thinking about ways to use them to foster future coding skills, but I am excited to write here about how we as educators and family members can and should use Lego Blocks to address foundational computational thinking skills for very young children with and without disabilities. While some early childhood educators and family members report that they are not necessarily prepared and confident in their ability to integrate early STEM leaning into their daily routines (Brenneman et al., 2009), many of the activities we already do easily lend themselves to STEM learning. And what’s more: Children are ready to engage and interested in such activities (Sarama et al., 2018). Let’s take Lego Blocks and computational thinking as an example.

To begin, although there are a few different specific “definitions” of foundational computational thinking in early childhood (Bers et al., 2021), most interpretations include sequencing, patterns, and representation as critical elements of definition, meaning that teaching these concepts in early childhood can support children’s later computer coding skills.

So, how do we use Lego Blocks to teach these concepts? Let’s start with the idea of using the blocks as symbols to represent something else (shall we call this a “code”?). At home and in classrooms, we can work with children to make the Lego Blocks stand for something else. For example, we may decide that the red block means “clap”, the blue block means “stomp”, and the yellow block means “spin”. It can be a lot of fun if children make some of their own choices. Then we can make a game out of doing the actions each block represents when we see it. Specific actions and the activity itself can be adapted and modified so that all children can participate. Visual supports and signs can be used to help label steps and actions and children can make sounds or other non-movement actions if they experience fine or gross motor challenges. Check out this guide from STEMIE to learn more about specific adaptations.

Once we have a set of blocks representing some sort of action/sound/response, we can start putting the blocks in a specific order and helping the children carry out the activities. If we use the actions described above, that would mean when we put out a sequence of red, red, blue, then the children would “clap”, “clap”, “stomp”. As children get older and more advanced in their thinking, we can encourage them to lead the activity and document the sequences they put together, encouraging them to develop their own codebook! They can develop sequences/codes for dances, songs, or whatever they desire to create!

This simple, fun activity can be done using Lego Blocks or other objects that are more convenient or of higher interest to individual children. Throughout the activity, be sure to label what the children are doing in ways that they can understand. Describe how the Lego Blocks are a symbol representing something else and that when we put them together in a particular order (or sequence), we can refer to that as creating “codes” or “coding”. The activity can help increase young children’s awareness of some of the most important foundational concepts of computational thinking, empowering them for future success in STEM and beyond. For more ideas and information, please visit


Read more…

Read the blog post written by Dr. Elica Sharifnia, and learn how to embed science learning opportunities at home

Elica Sharifnia's headshot

By Elica Sharifnia, PhD. 

Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Marsico Institute for Early Learning at the University of Denver

About the authors: Elica Sharifnia, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Marsico Institute for Early Learning at the University of Denver. Her research interests broadly center around better understanding how to best promote high-quality STEM teaching and learning for young children with the goal of informing educational practices in both the school and home context. She has a doctorate in Applied Developmental Psychology from the University of Miami and a B.A. degree in Neuroscience from Claremont McKenna College. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a research analyst doing early childhood STEM education research in the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International and was a student teaching assistant at The Children’s School at Claremont McKenna College.

Everyday routines at home like bath time or dinner are a great way to support your child’s science learning! There is a widely held misperception that science is expensive and that we need many materials so we can complete an experiment. But we know that’s not true! A new framework helps us re-imagine science for kids! This new approach helps children learn science by DOING science…together! There are 3 parts:

  1. Practices: What is your child doing? For example, your child may be observing and asking questions about their world, planning and carrying out investigations to see how things work or analyzing and interpreting data as they investigate.
  2. Core ideas: What content are you exploring? For example, you may be exploring life science as you talk about the plants and animals you see outside on your walk or exploring physical science as you explore mixing ingredients as you bake.
  3. Crosscutting concepts: What are you trying to understand together? These are big ideas that you and your child will be understanding such as cause and effect (for example, adding soap and water help clean our dirty hands and soap and water also help us clean the dishes) or noticing how the structure of an object may affect the function of it (for example, a spoon is a good tool to help us eat soup because of the shape compared to a fork).

Below are some ways to build your lens for the science opportunities all around your home!


Next time you prepare dinner…

  • Talk with your child about the ingredients and use of different senses (such as sight, touch, taste, hear and smell) to make observations about a variety of attributes (such as the color, texture, size, shape, weight, or temperature). For example, with cooking beans, you and your child can use your senses of sight and touch to talk about how the dried beans look and feel (such as “What do you notice about the color and the shape of the bean? How does it feel? Does it feel smooth or bumpy?).
  • Engage children in the science practice of using math such as counting the number of ingredients you have or measuring out the ingredients you need for your recipe using tools (for example, “How many ingredients are we going to use? Let’s count together or Let’s measure out 1 cup of water together using our measuring cup”).
  • As you cook, talk with your child about how the ingredients change, helping to support their understanding of stability and change. For example, with cooking rice, you and your child can make observations about the size and texture of the rice and how it changes from small and hard to bigger and softer when you cook the rice.

Doing Laundry

Even cleaning our dirty clothes is a great opportunity to engage young children in science learning!

  • If you happen to have a piece of clothing with a stain on it, ask your child to make observations about the clothing (for example, “How does the shirt feel? What do you notice about the stain?”).
  • Engage them in some problem solving by asking them to think about how you could clean the stain (for example, “What do we need to clean the stain? What should we do first?”), which is helping support children’s ability to plan and carry out investigations.
  • After running the clothing through the wash, ask your child to make observations again about the piece of clothing that had the stain on it (for example, “What do you notice about the shirt now? How does the shirt feel?”).
  • As your child makes observations, it is a great opportunity to help them think about cause and effect (for example, “What happened after we added the water and detergent?”, “When you add detergent and water to the stained shirt, it caused the stain to be removed!”). You can also extend your investigation by asking your children to further problem solve about how you could dry the clothing.

Bath time

There are lots of opportunities for science exploration with your little one during bath time! 

  • Start by asking your child to predict what will happen you hit the water with you hand (for example, “What do you think will happen when you hit the water with you hand?”).
  • Help support their understanding of physical science and think about the cause and effect relationship that happens when they hit the water with their hand (for example, “When you hit your hand on the water, it causes the water to splash). You could further extend this learning by investigating what happens when you use more force to hit the water!
  • If available, provide different sized measuring cups, buckets or bottles for your child during bath time. As your child explores with these materials, ask questions and help them make observations about the movement and the properties of the water (for example, “What happens when the cup is full?”).
  • Challenge your child to use math skills and engage in thinking about the crosscutting concept of scale, proportion, and quantity by asking them to make comparisons about which cup holds the most water (for example, “Which cup holds the most water? Let’s explore together”).

Although the new science framework is intended for kindergarten to 12th grade, it works for young children, starting at birth (Greenfield, Alexander, & Frechette, 2017)!


Greenfield, D. B., Alexander, A., & Frechette, E. (2017). Unleashing the Power of Science in Early Childhood: A Foundation for High-Quality Interactions and Learning. Zero to Three37(5), 13-21.

Read more…

Read the blog post written by Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang and Dr. Michaelene M. Ostrosky, and learn how to embed STEM learning opportunities during motor play.  

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

By Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Micki Ostrosky's headshot

By Michaelene M. Ostrosky,  PhD.

Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor of Education in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

About the authors:

Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang is a technical assistance specialist at the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMIE) Center and North Carolina Early Learning Network whose work aims to ensure ALL young children are included and can fully participate in learning activities. As a former occupational therapist, she has worked with young children with developmental disabilities and their families in a variety of settings (e.g., home, school, hospital). Her research focuses on early intervention, family-centered practices, parent coaching, inclusive practices, and social-emotional development.

Dr. Michaelene M. Ostrosky has been involved in curriculum development and research on the inclusion of children with disabilities, social emotional competence, and challenging behavior. Through her work on the National Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning she was involved in the development of the Pyramid Model for Supporting Social Emotional Competence in Young Children, and recently co-authored Unpacking the Pyramid Model: A practical guide for preschool teachers (2021). She also co-authored the Making Friends book (2016), which supports the acceptance of individuals with disabilities, and The Project Approach for All Learners (2018).

Gross motor play has a positive impact on children’s physical health and motor development, as well as contributing to pre-academic learning such as critical thinking skills, language development, and social-emotional development (Trawick -Smith, 2014). Nevertheless, some adults may wonder about the connection between motor play and STEM learning. Research shows that engagement in motor play provides important opportunities for children to develop pre-math skills and an understanding of spatial, temporal, and sequential concepts (Becker et al., 2014; Iverson, 2010), which are all related to STEM learning. Imagine a child who is playing with a ball. What STEM learning opportunities can you identify from this motor play? Here are some potential answers:

  • Gravity: If you throw a ball toward the sky, it will fall to the ground
  • Force and motion: If you push hard against a ball, it will roll across the floor

Below we have described a few activities and strategies to help you engage all children in STEM learning during motor play. These are based off of an early childhood curriculum, CHAMPPS: CHildren in Action: Motor Program for PreschoolerS (Favazza & Ostrosky, in press).

March around

  • Play Description: Ask children to march/jog/gallop/skip in a circle
  • Embed STEM learning:
    • Create movement patterns (e.g., march forward 5 steps, then backwards 5 steps).
    • Identify body parts as children do a motor activity, such as I am marching with my legs.
    • Ask children if they are feeling hot and sweaty following participation in a motor activity? Why do they think they feel that way?
    • Discuss how fast our hearts are beating after engaging in vigorous motor play. Ask children to touch their hearts and describe what they feel (i.e., Is their heart beating fast? Why?).

Animal Hopping

  • Play Description: Ask children “Which animals hop?” (i.e., bunny, frog, kangaroo). Then, ask children to jump around the room like the animal they named. Ring a bell after a minute or two and say Here comes a tiger!  Encourage children to return to their original spaces when they hear that phrase. Repeat 3-5 times and have children select a different animal, each time. 
  • Embed STEM learning:
    • Encourage children to count the number of times they hop
    • Use measurement words: hop higher, hop further
    • Emphasize position words: around, over, next to
    • Ask questions about different animals (e.g., What do they eat? Where do they live? What animal likes to chase rabbits?)

Considerations, Adaptations, and Accommodations:

Some children with disabilities need intentional and planned support from teachers and parents to help them access and participate in a variety of learning experiences. To ensure that all children can fully participate and engage in motor play and STEM learning, consider adapting the environment, materials, and instructions (see CARA’s Kit (Milbourne & Campbell, 2007 for ideas). You can:

  • Arrange the furniture to ensure that children can move around safely
  • Model and have children imitate movements, so that they can make connections between the words and movements
  • Use visual support cards to show the movements (see Image 1, Favazza & Ostrosky, in press)

visual picture of jump

  • Give children choices by asking them which movement they would like to do next, how many times they should do the movement, what pattern they should create (i.e., hop, walk, hop, walk), etc.
  • For children with physical disabilities, adapt the movements (i.e., both hands up in air versus hopping with two feet off the ground, holding onto something stationary like a chair or adult while hopping, etc.).

Becker, D. A., McClelland, M. M., Loprinzi, P. & Trost S. G. (2014) Physical Activity, Self-Regulation, and Early Academic Achievement in Preschool Children. Early Education and Development, 25, 56-70, DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2013.780505

Favazza, P. C. & Ostrosky, M. M. (in press). CHAMPPS: CHildren in Action: Motor Program for PreschoolerS. Paul H Brookes. 

Iverson, J. M. (2010). Developing language in a developing body: The relationship between motor development and language development. Journal of Child Language, 37(2), 229-261.

Milbourne, S., & Campbell, P. H. (2007). CARA's Kit: Creating adaptations for routines and activities. Philadelphia: Thomas Jefferson University, Child and Family Studies Research Programs. Distributed by DEC (

Trawick -Smith (2014). The physical play and motor development of young children: a review of literature and implications for practice. Retrieved from the web at: 2014/06/BenefitsOfPlay_LitReview.pdf.

Read more…
Read this blog post written by Dr. Ketchum and learn the strategies to explore and develop concepts of cause and effect with children at all ages and abilities! 

Aimee Ketchum's headshot
By Dr. Aimee Ketchum 

 About the author: 

Dr. Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist with over 24 years of experience working in pediatrics. She currently practices in the neonatal intensive care unit at UPMC hospital in Lititz where she founded the NICU retired nurse cuddler program. Ketchum is also academic fieldwork coordinator and assistant professor of early childhood development in the occupational therapy doctorate department of Cedar Crest College. Ketchum creates and teaches workshops on early child development through PA Quality Assurance System for pre-school teachers and early intervention practitioners. Ketchum is the founding director of Aimee’s Babies, LLC and creator of STEM Starts Now digital parenting program. She aims to create a next generation of innovators and problem solvers who are all afforded the ability to start kindergarten on an equitable playing field, giving all children everywhere the best start possible. Ketchum recently had her book “See Occupational Therapists Run” published by See Us Run Publishing.  This is a workbook to help fellow occupational therapists practice self-care to avoid burnout. Her baby development DVDs and apps have been featured on the Rachael Ray show, iPhone Essentials Magazine and the United Kingdom’s Baby and You Initiative. She was the winner of the 2017 Fine Living Lancaster Innovator Award, and the 2018 Social Enterprise Pitch and her work has been recognized with the prestigious Word Gap Challenge Finalist award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  

When we realize that one event occurs after another event, we are likely to conclude that the first event caused the second event to happen. We draw these causal conclusions all day long and they greatly affect how we learn. If we get blisters every time we wear ill-fitting shoes, we learn to stop wearing ill-fitting shoes. Babies begin to draw conclusions to learn about their world as early as three months of age (Gopnik, 1999).  Studies show that babies are remarkably able to make inferences and learn new information without prior knowledge (Shultz et al., 2008).

When scientists tied a ribbon to a mobile and to the foot of a three-month-old-baby, the baby quickly learned that the physical action of kicking their foot made the mobile move and they are apt to try this trick over and over again (Rovee-Collier, 1990). Very young babies also learn important social lessons through cause and effect. They learn that when they cry, their needs are met by doting parents and caregivers who quickly respond to comfort them (Hyunjoo, Dale, & Kimbrough, 2018). 

 By the time babies are eight months old, they are usually intentionally throwing items over the edge of the high-chair tray to see if we will pick them up, splashing the bath water to watch it slosh over the edge of the tub, and banging blocks together to hear the loud sound.

Babies also use communication to learn cause and effect by making sounds to get parents attention and even babbling in back-and-forth conversations with parents. 

Babies learn cause and effect by performing an action, then using all of their senses to observe the results. What happens when a baby has a disability or a delay? It is important that all children have access and can participate in learning experiences to practice manipulating their world and observing the effects. For children with disabilities, adaptations to the environment, materials, and/or instruction can provide opportunities to fully participating in learning experiences.

Let’s begin by considering the baby’s positioning and asking ourselves: Are babies positioned so they can see and touch their toys? Tummy time or supported sitting are great positions for babies to visually observe their world. If babies are unable to hold their head up in tummy time, they can be positioned on their side with both arms in front of them and simple toys within reach. 

Next, present developmentally appropriate and stimulating toys or objects. Some babies with disabilities may have a sensory delay making it important to engage as many senses as possible. Toys and objects should be visually stimulating, textured for tactile input, make noises for auditory input, and can even be scented. Adaptations can also be made to toys/objects so that children with disabilities can engage with them.

In addition to proper positioning and providing developmentally appropriate and stimulating toys, families and caregivers can take an active role in helping babies learn cause and effect by talking with babies and engaging in interactive play. If children are unable to grasp a toy, it can be placed into their hand, or the hand-over-hand technique can be used so babies feel the tactile sensation. Some studies show that babies can learn cause and effect from observing other people interacting with an object and causing that object to change (Saxe, Tenenbaum, & Carey, 2007; Meltzoff, Waismeyer, & Gopnik, 2012). Families can encourage babies to watch them stack blocks, then bring the baby’s hand to the blocks to knock them down, so the baby observes the action and takes part in the effect. 

Strategies to explore and develop concepts of cause and effect with children at all ages and abilities. Note that the ages are estimates:


  • Respond to baby’s cries in a timely manner to teach them that their needs will be met.
  • Wrist and bootie rattles are great for body awareness and learning that simple actions produce a noise.
  • Talk to babies all day to provide a foundation for language and pause for baby’s response after a question even before babies can talk and respond.


  • Hold baby and turn light switches on and off, narrating what you are doing and why. *Do not do this if baby has epilepsy.  Point out that the light is controlled by the switch. Encourage baby to try.
  • Provide toys or objects that stimulate all of the senses.
  • If babies are unable to hold and manipulate toys, do it hand-over-hand or adapt the materials to support exploration. Visit STEMIE’s Guide to Adaptations here
  • Water play or bathtime is a great sensory activity that teaches cause and effect because water reacts to movement. Use language as you play such as “full”, “empty”, “dump”, and “splash”.
  • Allow babies a lot of floor time with a variety of toys and household objects at their level to explore.
  • Respond to baby’s utterances and other forms of communication, begin to have back and forth conversations.

Nine-18 Months

  • Allow babies to learn to walk barefoot on different surfaces (e.g., grass, carpet) so they experience the textures on the bottom of their feet and learn how foot movements affect balance.
  • Explore sounds and music using musical instruments, household objects or loose parts (e.g., pots, ladles, plastic containers, cardboard boxes) because movement and sound are a fun way to learn cause and effect. Children who are deaf can also feel sounds and music and explore rhythms, pulses, and vibrations.
  • Mirrors are great for babies to see how their body moves and what their funny faces look like. 
  • As baby’s vocabulary grows, continue to have back and forth interactions and communication, ask and answer questions. 

18-24 Months

  • Outdoor play offers opportunities to engage different senses and use larger muscle groups to manipulate the world and learn from it.  Perhaps children can skip a rock in a pond to watch the ripples form or walk on a path with muddy footprints and observe the footprints being formed.
  • Interactive play with other children teaches social cause and effect skills for all children. 

Interactive and guided play, vast sensory experiences, back-and-forth conversations and communication, and lots of floor time with developmentally appropriate and safe toys and household objects within reach will help children start to understand concepts of cause and effect before they even have their second birthday.



Gopnik, A. (2010). How babies think. Scientific American, 303(1), 76-81.

Hyunjoo, Y., Dale B., & Kimbrough, O. (2018). The origin of protoconversation: An examination of caregiver responses to cry and speech-like vocalizations. 

Frontiers in Psychology. 9, 1510. https://doi.10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01510  

Kuhl, P., (2004). Early language acquisition: cracking the speech code. Natural Review Neuroscience. 5(11), 831-43.

Meltzoff, A. N., Waismeyer, A., & Gopnik, A. (2012). Learning about causes from people: observational causal learning in 24-month-old infants. Developmental 

psychology, 48(5), 1215–1228.   

Michnick, Golinkoff & Pasek. (2016). Becoming Brilliant: What science tells us about raising successful children. American Psychological Association.

Muentener P, Carey S. (2010). Infants' causal representations of state change events. Cognitive Psychology. 61(2), 63-86.

Rovee-Collier, C.K. (1990). The memory system of prelinguistic infants. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: The development and neural bases of higher 

cognitive functions, ed. 608, 517-42. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

Saxe, R., Tenenbaum, J., & Carey S. (2005). Secret agents: inferences about hidden causes by 10- and 12-month-old infants. Psychological Science. 16(12), 995-1001. http://doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01649.x. PMID: 16313665.                

Schulz, L. E., Goodman, N., Tenenbaum, J., & Jenkins, A. (2008). Going beyond the evidence: Abstract laws and preschoolers’ responses to anomalous data. 

Cognition, 109(2), 211-223.                                                 

Read more…

What is STEM?

What do we mean when we talk about STEM? Let's learn more from Dr. Harradine and Dr. Lim!

Christine Harradine's headshot

By Christine Harradine, PhD

PD Specialist at the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Chihing Lim's headshot

By Chih-Ing Lim, PhD.

Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

STEM is an acronym created by the National Science Foundation for science, technology (computational thinking), engineering, and mathematics. In early childhood, STEM can be taught alone or integrated intentionally in groups of two or three, or with the arts, language, literacy, and social-emotional learning throughout a child’s typical routines and daily activities.

Science is the study of content knowledge (energy & matter, force & motion, light, living & non-living things, Earth & its properties, sound, structure & properties of matter, and weather) and cross-cutting concepts (cause & effect, compare & contrast, patterns, stability & change, structure & function, and systems & their interactions) through child-level processes (ask, engage, observe, classify, investigate, sort, describe, analyze & interpret, and reflect).​

The technology part of STEM is often confused with devices such as tablets and laptops. Educational technology is sometimes discussed as a tool to promote learning in any content area. The “T” in STEM is the introduction of underlying concepts of building or creating technology, including computational thinking, which is the basic logic underlying computer science (DOE & DHHS, 2016).​ Specifically, computational thinking is the method used to problem-solve by determining ‘what’ (sequencing, looping, repetition, decomposition, and causation), ‘how’ (debugging), and ‘why’ through child-level processes (ask, engage, observe, create, investigate, describe, document, analyze & interpret, and reflect).​ Drs. Lisa Wadors and Jessica Amsbary, STEMIE team members give tips for practicing computational thinking skills with young children in this podcast.

The word “engineering” comes from the Latin words ingenium (which means “cleverness”) and ingeniare (which means “to devise”). At its most basic level, engineering is a systematic way of designing solutions to problems. These solutions can be new or improvements on existing solutions. Science and mathematics – as well as real-world experience - are central components. 

Mathematics is the study of patterns in numbers and space, including the concepts, processes, and structures of counting and numbers, space and shape, and symmetry, as well as a set of math practices by which math knowledge is developed, refined, and applied.​

In order for STEM to happen, two more of these content areas mix with a real-world situation and hands-on exploration to solve a problem or create something new.

Read more…


Hello and welcome to the STEM4EC Community.  We invite your participation.

Read More >

Neena Beena and Romona Haney joined stem4ec
Jun 4
Lucille A. Sleger posted a status
Hello. I am interested in STEM primarily for infants and toddlers ages birth to three, including participation of infants and toddlers with disabilities. I am also interested in STEM for preschool aged children, including participation of children…
May 29
Lucille A. Sleger is now a member of stem4ec
May 29
STEMIE Center posted a blog post
Come and learn about Dr. Jacob and Dr. Hagevik's work on garden-based STEAM learning.

Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs, Full Professor and Chair of AIS at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP)
Dr. Rita Hagevik, Professor and Director of Graduate…
May 21
Cindy Weigel and Amber Gregg joined stem4ec
May 9
Kim Sentell is now a member of stem4ec
May 1
Dr. Brenda Gonzalez is now a member of stem4ec
Apr 18
Renee Harris is now a member of stem4ec
Apr 7
STEMIE Center liked STEMIE Center's blog post My STEM Adventure: Inclusive Educational Gaming for Everyone
Apr 4
STEMIE Center posted a blog post
Fact: Assistive technology ranges from low-tech aids, such as grasping supports, to specialized high-tech supports, such as an augmentative communication system, based on the individualized needs of the child.

Victoria Waters, M.Ed. is an…
Apr 3
Cattleeya Chakkuchan is now a member of stem4ec
Apr 2
Lindsey Smith is now a member of stem4ec
Mar 26
Barbie Jones is now a member of stem4ec
Mar 21
Stacey Camp is now a member of stem4ec
Mar 7
Stephanie De Bear is now a member of stem4ec
Feb 27
Bogumila Ryndak-Mazur is now a member of stem4ec
Feb 15

Community Guidelines and Privacy Statement