Insights (15)

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…

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.


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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. 



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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.

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“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.


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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:

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“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:  

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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.

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The home is an exciting place for children to learn and grow. Many parents enjoy engaging in learning experiences with their children such as shared book reading and game playing. However, when it comes to making math a part of the learning experience, many parents are unsure where to begin. This blog post provides fun, practical math experiences that can be done at home to help children develop critical math skills.

Michele Stites' headshot

Dr. Michele Stites Susan Sonnenschein's headshot

Dr. Susan Sonnenschein

About the authors:

Dr. Michele Stites is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). She received her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction/Special Education from the George Washington University and her M.Ed. in special education from the University of Maryland College Park. Prior to her appointment at UMBC, she was the early childhood intervention specialist for a large school system in Maryland. Dr. Stites was an early childhood classroom teacher for 10 years working in both general and special education settings. Dr. Stites’ research interests focus on inclusive mathematics teaching practices and young children’s mathematics learning. As an assistant professor at UMBC she also works closely with teacher candidates. Dr. Stites has been widely published in both scholarly and practitioner-focused journals.

Dr. Susan Sonnenschein is a Professor in the Psychology Department at UMBC and the Graduate Program Director of the Applied Developmental Psychology Doctoral program. She received an M.S. degree from Penn State University in Educational Psychology, a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Stony Brook University, and is a certified (state of Maryland) school psychologist. Her research interests focus on factors that promote children’s educational success. She conducts research on family and school-based factors and how they affect children from different demographic backgrounds. In addition to having several hundred scholarly publications and presentations, she has written blogs and summaries of her research for nonprofessional audiences. One focusing on math activities to do with young children was published in the Conversation in 2018,

The learning activities young children engage in at home lead to better academic skills. We know that children who read different types of books at home are more likely to develop foundational literacy skills (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002; Serpell et al., 2005). And, many parents are confident that they know how to help their children learn to read (Sonnenschein,, 2021). But what about math? How comfortable are parents with fostering their children’s math skills at home?

We recently asked 236 parents of preschoolers how confident they were assisting their children with reading and math skills at home. And, what we found was not surprising. Most parents thought it was very important for their children to read (86%) and do math activities at home (68%). However, they viewed reading as more important than math. Why do they view reading as more important? It may have to do with confidence. Only 32% of parents in our study reported that they were very confident in their ability to support their child’s math learning.

Given what we know about the importance of reading to children, and the need for more math exposure in the home, we should  link the two together! Making learning fun for young children and engaging their interest in such learning is positively associated with better academic skills (Sonnenschein et al., 2016).  Drilling children on skills is not (Serpell et al., 2005).

Many parents are confident engaging in dialogic reading experiences with their children and with minimal effort we can easily add math into the experience. Many parents also shared with us that they want fun, play-based ways to foster math skills at home (e.g. NO worksheets!). Here are some practical ideas:

Linking Storybook Reading to Math

  1. Expose their children to a variety of reading genres (e.g., storybooks, informational text) and find the math in the story. You do not need math themed books to do this! Count the number of bunnies, talk about shapes, find patterns, etc. Be sure to use mathematical language (e.g. “more”, “equal”, etc.) when talking about a math topic because it increases skill development (Akinci-Coşgun,, 2020; Stites & Brown, 2019).
  2. Use a math themed book. Books like Anno’s Counting book and Ten Magic Butterflies are mathematically themed. Take the time to explore the math content. Questions like, “How many in all?” and “what comes next?” are great with counting books. If the book focuses on a skill like addition work on additional equations. “Wow, we just answered 2 + 1=3. Do you know what 2+2 equals?”
  3. Make use of digital and adapted books. If a child has a disability, adapted books are a great way to remove some of the barriers in traditional print books. In fact, all children, not just those with disabilities, often respond to the  different formats provided in these books.

Play-Based Math Learning

  1. Play board games. Games have been shown to be an effective way to engage with numbers and patterns. Take the time to question the child about numbers, shapes, and patterns.
  2. Take a nature walk. Notice the shapes in the leave. Count the clouds. The world is your oyster here!
  3. Build with blocks or Legos. Count the items and make patterns. Ask the child what comes next and how many there are altogether. Take some away and ask how many are left. Make shapes!
  4. Draw and create art. As the child is drawing ask her to make three more flowers. Use playdough and make shapes and patterns. And talk about the shapes the child and you create. The language used matters!


  1. Akinci-Coşgun, A, Stites, M.L., & Sonnenschein, S. (2020). Using storybooks to support young children’s mathematics learning at school and home. In Bekir, H., Bayraktar, V., & Karaçelik, S.N. (Eds.), Development in Education. Istanbul, Turkey: Hiperlink.
  2. Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children’s reading skill: A five-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73 , 445–461.
  3. Serpell, R., Baker, L. & Sonnenschein, S. (2005). Becoming literate in the city: The Baltimore Early Childhood Project. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Sonnenschein, S., Metzger, S. R., & Thompson, J. A. (2016). Low-income parents’ socialization of their preschoolers’ early reading and math skills. Research in Human Development, 13, 207-224. doi: 10.1080/15427609.2016.1194707
  5. Sonnenschein, S., Stites, M.L., & Dowling, R. (2021).  Learning at home: What preschool parents do and what they want to learn from their children’s teachers? Journal of Early Childhood Research. doi:10.1177/1476718X20971321
  6. Stites, M.L. & Brown, E.T. (2019). Observing mathematical learning experiences in preschool.  Early Child Development and Care. doi:10.1080/03004430.2019.1601089.
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At the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMI2E2) center, we are developing and enhancing the knowledge on the practices and supports necessary to improve access and participation within  early STEM learning  opportunities. But many of you may question why STEM is so important in the early years. This week, we invited Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama to share their insights with us.

About the Authors
Douglas H. Clements's headshot Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D.
Dr. Clements received his PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Previously a preschool and kindergarten teacher, he has conducted funded research and published over 500 articles and books in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education.

Julie Sarama's headshotJulie Sarama, Ph.D.
Dr. Sarama received her PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Dr. Sarama has taught secondary mathematics and computer science, gifted math at the middle school level, preschool and kindergarten mathematics enrichment classes, and mathematics methods and content courses for elementary to secondary teachers. She designed and programmed over 50 published computer programs, including her version of Logo and Logo-based software activities (Turtle Math™, which was awarded Technology & Learning Software of the Year award, 1995, in the category "Math"). 

How important is doing STEM in the early years…really? If my children do more STEM, will it make a difference later?

Absolutely, but you don’t have to take our word for it!  STEM in the early years has been found by researchers to be surprisingly important for development through life.

Let’s take a look at math first. The math children know when they enter kindergarten predicts their math achievement for years to come 1 out to 10th grade 2. Math also predicts later success in reading,1,3 so math appears to be a core component of cognition. Further, knowledge of math in the early years is the best predictor of graduating high school 4. One more: Number and arithmetic knowledge at age 7 years predicts socioeconomic status at age 42, even controlling for all other variables.5  These predictions may show that math concepts and skills are important to all of school and life. However,  math is much more: Math is critical thinking and problem-solving, and high-quality math experiences also promote social and emotional development, literacy, and general brain development!6,7,8,9 No wonder early STEM experience predicts later success.

Inside children, language and STEM are “best friends.”  That is, connections between the development of math and literacy are numerous and it’s a “two-way street”.10,11,12 The more math language children learn, such as “more,” less, “behind,” “above” and number and shape words, the more math children learn.13 More surprising, preschoolers’ narrative abilities, particularly their ability to convey all the main events of the story, offer a perspective on the events in the story, and relate the main events of the story to their lives, predict math achievement two years later.14 And, going the other way on this street, children who experience more high-quality mathematics in preschool grow in their expressive oral language abilities (measured by assessments devoid of any math vocabulary15). In another study in the UK, doing math increased later scores on English by 14 percentile points.16 

The same is true with science. First, early science matters to later science. Children who have primary-grade teachers trained in the U.S. science framework17 score significantly higher than their peers in fifth grade.18 Second, science activities excite children’s “STEM talk” that reflects scientific reasoning, including observing, predicting, comparing, explaining, and generalizing19. And reading for comprehension and reading-to-learn requires concepts and knowledge of the world, both of which STEM provides.20  Doing more science increases primary-grade children’s science, and math, and reading scores.21

Not just language, but many cognitive and affective, or emotional outcomes improve with STEM. Let’s consider two: executive function (EF) and approaches to learning. EF, including cognitive flexibility, updating working memory, and response inhibition, is one of the most important general cognitive abilities. EF is highly related to academic success 22 and particularly important to children with disabilities 23 as well as to children from low-resource communities. Research also has confirmed the importance of engagement in learning or approaches to learning. In one study, it was the single best predictor of learning as far out as fifth grade 24 ). Such engagement in learning, including persistence at tasks, eagerness to learn, attentiveness, learning independence, flexibility, and organization, was especially important for girls and minority students. 

The good news is, high-quality STEM may develop both!22 For example, EF predicts math22 and predicts science learning.25 Early STEM offers a fruitful context to foster EF and approaches-to-learning in many ways: 26,27 

•    STEM elicits children’s natural curiosity about the world.

•    STEM providing a unique opportunity to engage children in hands-on learning experiences. These experiences promote critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, persistence, and other adaptive domain-general learning skills such as EF.

In solving STEM problems, children make observations, engage in rich conversations with teachers and other children, and think flexibly to come up with predictions and solutions to their problems. Inherent to STEM is the expectation that we learn from failures and mistakes.28 Children learn to try and try again, practicing risk-taking, persistence, tolerance for frustration, and maintaining focus. 26,27


  1. Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., . . . Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1428
  2. Stevenson, H. W., & Newman, R. S. (1986). Long-term prediction of achievement and attitudes in mathematics and reading. Child Development, 57(3), 646–659. doi: 10.2307/1130343
  3. Duncan, G. J., & Magnuson, K. (2011). The nature and impact of early achievement skills, attention skills, and behavior problems. In G. J. Duncan & R. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality and the uncertain life chances of low-income children (pp. 47–70). New York, NY: Sage.
  4. McCoy, D. C., Yoshikawa, H., Ziol-Guest, K. M., Duncan, G. J., Schindler, H. S., Magnuson, K., . . . Shonkoff, J. P. (2017). Impacts of early childhood education on medium- and long-term educational outcomes. Educational Researcher, 46(8), 474–487. doi: 10.3102/0013189x17737739
  5. Ritchie, S. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). Enduring links from childhood mathematics and reading achievement to adult socioeconomic status. Psychological Science, 24, 1301–1308. doi: 10.1177/0956797612466268
  6. Aydogan, C., Plummer, C., Kang, S. J., Bilbrey, C., Farran, D. C., & Lipsey, M. W. (2005, June 5-8). An investigation of prekindergarten curricula: Influences on classroom characteristics and child engagement. Paper presented at the NAEYC, Washington, DC.
  7. Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Layzer, C., Unlu, F., & Fesler, L. (2020). Effects on mathematics and executive function of a mathematics and play intervention versus mathematics alone. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 51(3), 301-333. doi: 10.5951/jresemtheduc-2019-0069
  8. Dumas, D., McNeish, D., Sarama, J., & Clements, D. (2019). Preschool mathematics intervention can significantly improve student learning trajectories through elementary school. AERA Open, 5(4), 1–5. doi: 10.1177/2332858419879446
  9. Sarama, J., Lange, A., Clements, D. H., & Wolfe, C. B. (2012). The impacts of an early mathematics curriculum on emerging literacy and language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(3), 489–502. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002
  10. McGraw, A. L., Ganley, C. M., Powell, S. R., Purpura, D. J., Schoen, R. C., & Schatschneider, C. (2019, March). An investigation of mathematics language and its relation with mathematics and reading . Paper presented at the 2019 SRCD Biennial Meeting, Baltimore, MD.
  11. Purpura, D. J., Day, E., Napoli, A. R., & Hart, S. A. (2017). Identifying domain-general and domain-specific predictors of low mathematics performance: A classification and regression tree analysis. Journal of Numerical Cognition, 3(2), 365–399. doi: 10.5964/jnc.v3i2.53
  12. Purpura, D. J., & Napoli, A. R. (in press). Early numeracy and literacy: Untangling the relation between specific components. Mathematical Thinking and Learning.
  13. Toll, S. W. M., & Van Luit, J. E. H. (2014). Explaining numeracy development in weak performing kindergartners. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 124C, 97–111. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.02.001
  14. O'Neill, D. K., Pearce, M. J., & Pick, J. L. (2004)Predictive relations between aspects of preschool children’s narratives and performance on the Peabody Individualized Achievement Test - Revised: Evidence of a relation between early narrative and later mathematical ability. First Language, 24, 149-183.
  15. Sarama, J., Lange, A., Clements, D. H., and Wolfe, C. B. (2012). The Impacts of an Early Mathematics Curriculum on Emerging Literacy and Language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 489-502. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002.
  16. Shayer, M. & Adhami, M. (2010). Realizing the cognitive potential of children 5–7 with a mathematics focus: Post‐test and long‐term effects of a 2‐year intervention. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(3), 363–379.
  17. National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
  18. Kaderavek, J. N., Paprzycki, P., Czerniak, C. M., Hapgood, S., Mentzer, G., Molitor, S., & Mendenhall, R. (2020). Longitudinal impact of early childhood science instruction on 5th grade science achievement. International Journal of Science Education, 1-20. doi: 10.1080/09500693.2020.1749908
  19. Henrichs, L. F., Leseman, P. P. M., Broekhof, K., & Cohen de Lara, H. (2011). Kindergarten talk about science and technology. In M. J. de Vries, H. van Keulen, S. Peters & J. W. van der Molen (Eds.), Professional development for primary teachers in science and technology: The Dutch VTB-Pro project in an international perspective (pp. 217–227). Boston: Sense.
  20. McClure, E. R., Guernsey, L., Clements, D. H., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N., & Levine, M. H. (2017). STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. New York: NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
  21. Paprzycki, P., Tuttle, N., Czerniak, C. M., Molitor, S., Kadervaek, J., & Mendenhall, R. (2017). The impact of a framework‐aligned science professional development program on literacy and mathematics achievement of K‐3 students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(9), 1174–1196. doi: 10.1002/tea.21400
  22. Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., & Germeroth, C. (2016). Learning executive function and early mathematics: Directions of causal relations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36(3), 79–90. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.12.009
  23. Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2019). Executive function and early mathematical learning difficulties. In A. Fritz, V. G. Haase & P. Räsänen (Eds.), International handbook of mathematical learning difficulties: From the laboratory to the classroom (pp. 755–771). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  24. Bodovski, K., & Youn, M.-J. (2011). The long term effects of early acquired skills and behaviors on young children’s achievement in literacy and mathematics. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 9(1), 4–19.
  25. Nayfeld, I., Fuccillo, J., & Greenfield, D. B. (2013). Executive functions in early learning: Extending the relationship between executive functions and school readiness to science. Learning and Individual Differences, 26, 81–88. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2013.04.011
  26. Bustamante, A. S., Greenfield, D., & Nayfeld, I. (2018). Early childhood science and engineering: Engaging platforms for fostering domain-general learning skills. Education Sciences, 8(3), 144. doi: 10.3390/educsci8030144
  27. Bustamante, A. S., White, L. J., & Greenfield, D. B. (2018). Approaches to learning and science education in Head Start: Examining bidirectionality. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 44, 34–42. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.02.013
  28. Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York, NY: Basic Books.
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At the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMI2E2) center, one of the first tasks we did was to take a look at what kind of research evidence exists in STEM learning and young children with disabilities. We conducted a scoping review and found that a majority of the references were related to children of preschool age (3-4 years old). Very few discussed infants/toddlers and children with disabilities.

Christine Harradine's headshot

By Christine Harradine, PhD

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

One of the first tasks we did when we started our work a year ago was to take a look at what kind of research evidence exists in STEM learning and young children with disabilities. We conducted an extensive review of the research – called a scoping review – to see what we could find.  We searched 102 different sources such as databases, direct searches of journals, reports, conference proceedings, master’s theses, presentation transcripts, films, and dissertations) with 20 search terms.  This yielded 1,407 unique references, which two-person teams independently reviewed for exclusion based on age and topic. We ended up with 486 unique references, which we categorized in several ways.

The scoping review found that the vast majority (92.6%) of these 486 references were related to children of preschool age (3-4 years old). Very few discussed infants (1.9%) or toddlers (1%). 

We also wanted to know if these 486 references covered young children with disabilities. We allowed the search to cover STEM learning in all early care arrangements (e.g., home, child care, preschool, Head Start, etc.) for all children with and without disabilities, ages birth to five years. Only 6% (n=29) of the references we found referred to children with disabilities. 
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Perspectives: Inclusion Right from the Start

Meet Alex, a fifth-grader, who found math challenging when he was younger. But now is acing Math classes with a little help from a calculator and lots of encouragement and support from people who believe in what he CAN do.

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

In my blog post on September 19, 2019, I discussed the disparity in STEM learning opportunities for children with disabilities. We know from research that teaching and learning early science and math is associated with later achievement. We also have research that tells us that preschool mathematics knowledge predicts adults' earning potential (Geary et al., 2013). Given all these, why do we continue to deny children, especially those with disabilities the opportunity to develop their STEM knowledge and skills?

Meet Alex, a fifth-grader, who found math challenging when he was younger. But now he is acing Math classes with a little help from a calculator and support from people who believe in what he CAN do. In Alex’s own words, he shared, “I'm so lucky to be surrounded by people who believe in me and support me. I just wish every kid with a disability can have the same opportunities and experiences as me.”

Watch Alex in action. 

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At the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMI2E2) center, we are developing and validating learning trajectories for science, technology, and, engineering. At the same time, we are improving existing trajectories for math. Why are learning trajectories critical to early childhood educators? Learning trajectories help educators understand how children think and learn about STEM topics and at the same time, how to support progressions in child thinking and learning.

About the Authors
Douglas H. Clements'' headshot Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D.
Dr. Clements received his PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Previously a preschool and kindergarten teacher, he has conducted funded research and published over 500 articles and books in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education.

Julie Sarama's headshotJulie Sarama, Ph.D.
Dr. Sarama received her PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Dr. Sarama has taught secondary mathematics and computer science, gifted math at the middle school level, preschool and kindergarten mathematics enrichment classes, and mathematics methods and content courses for elementary to secondary teachers. She designed and programmed over 50 published computer programs, including her version of Logo and Logo-based software activities (Turtle Math™, which was awarded Technology & Learning Software of the Year award, 1995, in the category "Math").


Research-based learning trajectories include three parts:

  1. a goal,
  2. a developmental progression, and
  3. teaching.

The goal is grounded in content knowledge of the topic (for example science, technology, engineering, or math). To reach the goal, children learn each successive level of thinking in the developmental progression. Children move through the progression via teaching designed to build understanding and skill that enables thinking at each higher level. Teaching includes the environment, interactions, and activities. At the core of learning trajectories is children’s thinking and learning. So, their educational experiences are sure to be developmentally appropriate.


For example, we know that most young children learn to keep one-to-one correspondence up to about 5 objects in a line before they learn that the last counting word tells how many in the set the counting, and only later how to keep one-to-one correspondence in unordered sets of objects. This is just a small section of the developmental progression for counting illustrating how it can help sharpen our observation skills and help us plan informal and more intentional activities.
As this example suggests, learning trajectories are well developed in mathematics (and some non-STEM fields such as literacy). But we are also learning how children develop and understanding of science and engineering concepts. So learning trajectories can guide teaching in all STEM domains.


For early childhood educators, assessing, understanding, and teaching with learning trajectories based on the developmental sequences described here is especially important for children with disabilities. Children with disabilities might be operating at levels different from their peers. They may be at quite different levels in one topic (say, counting) than others (such as geometry). Because learning trajectories offer several “ways into” important topics like arithmetic (e.g., counting, subitizing, partitioning), children can build on their strengths. At the same time, they can make developmental progress in other topics. Also, learning trajectories’ levels are broader ways of thinking (e.g., to get to the next level), rather than narrower skills. So, children can both learn and show competencies in each level using a variety of modalities and representations. Most importantly, learning trajectories can be aligned with formative assessment and the Individualized Education Program (IEP) or the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) process.

Most early childhood professionals agree in general with the notion of “meeting each child where they are.” But, in STEM fields especially, few have been supported in understanding a developmental (formative) path that:

  1. describes and explains where children’s level of thinking is,
  2. what the next challenging, but achievable, level is, and
  3. how to support, children, including making accommodations and modifications for
    those with disabilities, to accomplish their goals.


Formative Assessment

Learning Trajectories

Where are you trying to go?


Where are you now?

Developmental Progression

How do you get there?

Teaching (activities)


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Children can develop the foundations for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning right from infancy. Yet children with developmental delays and disabilities are especially denied opportunities to learn STEM.  By the time children get to high school, the disparity in STEM learning is very obvious (see chart below).  Data from the Department of Education show a large disparity in enrollment in STEM courses between high school students with (IDEA) and without a disability.

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

For us as a field, this presents opportunity for improvement in early childhood STEM learning. We know preschoolers’ free play involves STEM skills as they explore patterns and shapes; engineer with various materials; and explore scientific concepts. Even infants and toddlers’ exploration of the world around them is STEM-related — as they experiment with concepts of cause and effect, shapes, and experience with their senses. We also know families are children's first and longest lasting teachers. Families are more likely to implement and use intervention practices when they understand the benefits. Yet, how do we move the dial more toward including young children with disabilities in STEM learning? One way is to center instruction around learning trajectories or developmental progression. We’ll talk about the process more in future posts. Doing so focuses practitioners’ attention on children’s thinking and learning rather than their memberships in diverse groups (e.g., racially, ability). Using learning trajectories also helps avoid perceptions that can negatively affect early childhood STEM teaching and learning.

US department of education data that illustrates the percent of high school students enrolled in STEM courses

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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.

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