PreK Students Learn About STEM By Exploring Nature

It was there all along. An unassuming Jacaranda tree next to a tire swing at the Children’s Center at Caltech. Students in the PreK program passed under the tree dozens of times without giving it much thought. That was until they developed a greater appreciation for nature.

When young learners think about living things, they typically think more about people and pets than they do about insects, plants, trees, and animals found in nature. Through a new SAE A World In Motion® (AWIM®) PreK STEM exploration titled We Explore Living Things, students at the Children’s Center had a chance to gain an appreciation for all living things big and small by investigating how different plants and animals thrive. They also read My Pet Tree, Albert, a story about a girl who proves her pet tree is a living thing just like her friends’ animal pets—a story that would take on special meaning for one particular student.

Back to that unassuming Jacaranda tree—the one that had been there all along. One day, a student moved a chair right up underneath the tree. During outside time, she now goes and sits with it a few minutes at a time. She gives it hugs. She named it “Rose.” It’s her favorite tree.

As the students learned more about nature, outside time meant looking for insects, lizards, and other living things. If they couldn’t find them, they’d talk about where they might be that day or gently move rocks to see if they might be hiding. On days and weeks where students weren’t able to have outside time because of COVID-19 protocols, teachers would capture pictures of tree leaves and other living things so students could still experience nature.

“Our students started to develop a newfound appreciation for nature. Before, they might grab a leaf off of a tree or a flower but as they started to understand a tree is a living thing, that it gives us shade—they started being gentler and more aware. They started really noting the different types of trees and living things we have outside of the center,” said Janet Nunez, lead teacher of the Raccoon Classroom at the Children’s Center at Caltech which mainly serves families from California Institute of Technology and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

STEM doesn’t have to mean Chromebooks for every student or wanting to be an engineer. For PreK students, it’s about having a chance to explore the STEM experiences that are all around us—weather, living things, the places we live, and building things.

“The students had a blast. They loved the explorations and learning more about nature,” Nunez added. There’s also a pretty good chance there’ll be a lot more “favorite trees” at the Children’s Center.

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