Differences in math and science skills between children can start as early as kindergarten, but educators can take steps with young students to try and counter these inequities through curriculum.
With young students, teachers can start building experiences into the school day through small field trips that can help motivate and spark interest in students by connecting them to the world around them, said Emily Adah Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Department of Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies Education and one of the co-authors of the Next Generation Science Standards. That may mean something as small as having students explore squirrels jumping in the neighborhood, and then measure their own jumps, integrating math into the activity.
Miller said these experiences and experimental play are often cut from lower-income schools, with emphasis instead on adding more time for reading and math. “Instead, add experiences into science and math. The integration gives you more for the same number of minutes and brings more meaning to science.”
As the K-5 STEM Exploratory Teacher at Kent City Elementary in Michigan, Billie Freeland also suggests linking play and experiences to math and science lessons. Freeland integrates toys and has students build their own as a means of helping them learn math and science basics. For example, 1st graders are tasked with building animals with existing materials around their homes — resources that include recycled plastic and colored paper. They may then start to talk about structures for moving with that toy, how a fish uses fins to swim, or how a worm uses hair to burrow.
“They dig worms and study them through magnifying glasses, and it’s that experience that allows them to see how a worm moves,” Freeland said. “At first, they don’t know what the structures are for moving. But now they have the vocabulary.”
Freeland added that educators don’t need to think of experiences as big. Instead, these can be something small. She has assigned homework to 2nd grade students and their families asking them to go on night hikes and look for nocturnal animals. Or she’ll take students outside for a walk to notice the change in colors of leaves, point out a bird’s nest, or notice what trees may be dropping on the ground during the fall.
“That creates a common experience,” Freeland said. “Now, all the kids have seen a squirrel’s nest or a pine cone.”
Miller said all of these experiences also help build foundations for students in not just math and science, but literacy.
“Students are then using language for meaningful purposes,” said Miller. “And this builds language gifts as they’re using language in a way that matters to them.”