Preschool teacher Denise Nelson doesn’t talk much about volcanoes anymore. Or dinosaurs.
Instead, she has spent the past six weeks trying to get 20 3- to 5-year-olds in her Head Start classroom at a Worcester preschool to ponder the properties of water. Leaning over water tables, they find out which blocks float and why paper boats sink. And they get a bit wet along the way.
On the surface, the switch in topics may not seem significant. But what Nelson is doing represents the beginning of a change in preschool education as more schools introduce science, technology, engineering, and math - the so-called STEM subjects - to students so young that many don’t even read yet.
Will her efforts turn out the next Bill Gates? That she doesn’t know. But Nelson does want her students to be better prepared to compete when they enter the workforce.
“Any kind of job is going to involve a lot more STEM,’’ she said.
Preschools have long followed the practice of elementary education and dabbled with bits and pieces of science-based teaching in their everyday learning: Playing with blocks, for example, learning numbers, and coloring are all aspects of engineering, math, and science.
But what is happening now is that such lessons are becoming formalized within a preschool curriculum. And within the early childhood development community there is a greater emphasis on training teachers to turn simple play into lessons that encourage critical thinking.
The push to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math in preschools follows decades of advocacy by education experts, policy makers, and politicians who have long complained about the poor state of science and math education in American classrooms.
Many corporations promote the STEM subjects as a way to boost the number of scientists, computer programmers, engineers, and mathematicians coming out of American universities.
The percent of college graduates with science and engineering degrees has declined modestly over the past 45 years, but more importantly, the United States is lagging far behind globally. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks the nation 24th among 31 of its member countries in terms of employed 25- to 34-year-olds with degrees in science, math, or related fields.
The Obama administration is attempting to change that.
In the president’s budget plan, presented to Congress Feb. 13, he asked for $80 million to train 100,000 math and science teachers in hopes the effort will result in 1 million more college graduates with degrees in those subjects.
Many specialists say the preschool focus is an extension of the greater emphasis on math and science education that has become a matter of national policy to keep the United States competitive in a technology-driven global marketplace.
In Massachusetts, the state issued new goals in 2010 to improve science and math education from the preschool level through high school, to improve test scores in those subjects, and to encourage more college-bound students to pursue them as majors.
‘Any kind of job is going to involve a lot more STEM.’
“The focus on STEM in early education is new, but it’s part of an effort to keep the focus on engineering so that we graduate more people in engineering,’’ said Cathleen Finn, International Business Machines Corp.’s New England manager for corporate affairs. “That sets the stage for awareness as kids go through school.’’
But education experts stress that preschools need to strike the right balance between play and instruction. And, many say, unstructured time on the playground is an important part of early education.
Even so, a growing body of research suggests young children are hungry for such knowledge. The 2009 report “Mathematics Learning in Early Childhood,’’ from the National Research Council in Washington, said that “well before first grade, children can learn the ideas and skills that support later, more complex mathematics understanding.’’
Children at this age are “naturally, instinctively, motivated to try to figure out how the world works,’’ said Karen Worth, who teaches early-childhood education at Wheelock College. “So it’s an area in which kids are interested, curious, and therefore likely to push the cognitive processes that will help them.’’
While she supports increasing science-related teaching at the preschool level, Worth said it should not be done in service of turning out more engineers.
She said such teaching helps young minds develop so they can pursue any number of subjects and improve their vocabulary and literacy skills.
“It is the field in which we can create the most cognitively challenging work that promotes the child’s most basic abilities,’’ Worth added.
The growing focus on science is most apparent in Head Start, a federally funded program for low-income children, since those programs adhere to government guidelines that emphasize math and science. What’s more, there has been an increase in grant money available to promote STEM in low-income communities.
On a recent weekday morning at the ABCD Mattapan Head Start Center, Finn toured seven classrooms for 140 children from low-income families that had child-size computer stations IBM donated as part of its KidSmart Early Learning Program. Since 1998, IBM has spent $133 million to provide 60,000 computers to schools and nonprofit organizations in 60 countries.
In one room, 5-year-old Amaya Jones-DeJesus sat snugly next to her playmate, 4-year-old Jada Jean, on a blue bench in front of the computer - which is built into a colorful kid-proof encasement that could survive all the abuse a 4-year-old can deliver. They squirmed while working with Janessa Jackson .
Amaya moved the mouse and clicked on the words and pictures on the screen, and Jada poked the monitor. “It helps do science,’’ said Amaya, “and playing and rhyming.’’
But some educators, such as Worth of Wheelock College, oppose saturating preschools with computers. She believes the most effective way to teach young children about the sciences is to have teachers guide them as they experiment with the simplest objects, such as using blocks to construct a mountain.
As much as she supports it, Worth said there is no evidence that starting science, technology, engineering, and math in preschool, elementary school, or even middle school primes the pipeline for engineers.
Still, many technology companies are investing millions of dollars in the hopes it will.
John Stuart, senior vice president of education for PTC, a Needham software company, said it is essential to get children interested in the STEM subjects early, so they consider those subjects for future careers.
PTC focuses much of its outreach on elementary school students and has donated $1 million to expand an after-school program that includes a contest in which students use LEGO blocks to build robots. In the more than 20 years the software company has been involved in science education, Stuart said, company officials have increasingly targeted younger students.
“If you haven’t started to hook kids early on,’’ he said, “you could lose them.’’Michael B. Farrell can be reached at email@example.com.