Source: St. Margaret's School

Starting STEM Early

February 26, 2019

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

Over and over again, there have been claims that increasing the number of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) starts at the elementary school level (such as in this op-ed on In the US, schools such as Gateway STEM High School are creating opportunities for boys and girls in high school to choose STEM paths before they enter post-secondary education. Here in Canada, programs that focus on STEM before post-secondary are also available, and one unique school is even here in our British Columbia backyard.

Generally, elementary and secondary schools in Canada include STEM programs that are available as part of a broader curriculum. Schools include mandatory STEM classes or offer extracurricular STEM activities (math clubs, coding clubs, robotics clubs, etc.), but there are very few that offer programs or schools that use STEM as their base curriculum and revolve other subjects around that foundation. There are various schools that centre around subjects such as performing arts, graphic design, ice hockey, and languages like French, but schools focused on STEM are few and far between.

There are locations that stand out as pioneering STEM-focused education in Canada: Edmonton, Alberta, and Victoria, British Columbia. In the Edmonton Public Schools, a program called the “Science Inquiry Program” is available at Elmwood School, a Kindergarten to grade 6 elementary school. This program “supports students in building academic skills through investigation and hands-on learning to understand how science shapes our world.” Students work collaboratively to research, explore, solve problems, and make claims based on relevant evidence, teaching them about empirical research from the beginning of their schooling. This program is designed for students to understand how knowledge is created in the science community through critical thinking, making reasoned judgments, and drawing conclusions. The program focuses on multi-literacy learning and inquiry.

Elmwood School is the same school that created a sensory room for students who have unique learning needs, such as students with autism, students who are non-verbal, or anyone overwhelmed by loud noises and bright colours. The school states their mission as “every child, every day…no exceptions” and believes that “our environment” has instructive power to “invite, engage, ignite, and inspire” and that inquiry brings students into new discoveries. After students graduate from Elmwood, it is apparent that they would continue their STEM education alongside many other subjects required by the Edmonton Public School curriculum.

In Victoria, BC, at the private St. Margaret’s School, girls start their STEM studies in junior kindergarten and kindergarten. This school is Canada’s first girls junior kindergarten to grade 12 STEM school, and all school subjects are approached from a STEM foundation. Working together in teams, play-based curriculum in younger grades, guided exploration, and, at the higher grades, tackling complex problems with multiple perspectives are the ways in which students study STEM and other necessary school subjects. On the website ChatterBlock, the school’s Communications Coordinator Jennifer Cook was interviewed as saying that their STEM learning goals will help raise the statistics of women in STEM, citing a study from Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax that suggests that “girls are six times as likely to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics when they have exposure to these subjects in early grades.” Cook maintains that students at St. Margaret’s start learning the ability to ask “how” in the earliest grades, and while the methods of teaching may change as the students grow older, the emphasis in STEM subject areas grows, with technology integrated into the classroom at all levels and specialist instruction of math and science. In addition, they offer extracurricular STEM clubs, such as their Tech Girls Club and their Outside While Learning program for junior and senior kindergarten classes, which allows the classes to spend afternoons together exploring the outdoors.

Schools that focus on STEM from the very beginning of education are surely a successful way to encourage girls to pursue STEM later in their school careers. These schools and programs are not accessible to everyone, however, either because of high tuition costs in private schools or limited capacity in public schools. While these programs are exciting for increasing girls’ participation in STEM at early ages, it is also very important that teachers and educators approach their delivery of science and technology curricula in interesting ways, as well as mentoring girls who have an interest in STEM and actively showing their support. Parents also play a huge role in this and should realize that gendering of children starts early, and that excitedly supporting their children when they show an interest in STEM subjects will help them to pursue those subjects more seriously.

For more of our blog posts about encouraging girls to pursue STEM, check out “Getting Girls into STEM: Then Versus Now,” “5 Videos to Change Young Girls’ View of STEM," and "Supporting Girls in STEM."