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Toy building blocks aren’t an unusual sight in a preschool classroom. But teachers aren’t typically using them in a physics lesson about force and gravity with their four-year-olds.

That’s largely because teachers aren’t comfortable with introducing young children to science, according to a group of educators committed to helping elementary school teachers become better at teaching STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – in the early grades.

Last week, representatives from 11 educational institutions from across the country came together to tackle this challenge: promoting active STEM learning in the early education years, from preschool to third grade. That effort starts with finding ways to support classroom teachers and help them get students on the path toward understanding higher-level concepts in the upper grades.

“It’s more about giving the teachers, the educators, the space to be learners themselves and learn how to use our museum, our facility, in different ways,” said Gerrie Hall, manager of school and teacher progress at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City. Most of the professional development opportunities the Intrepid Museum currently offers are geared towards upper elementary teachers or those working with middle or high school students. But with the recent push for more STEM education across grade levels, those tasked with teaching the country’s educators, like David Randle, senior manager of professional development at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, think more needs to be done to expose the youngest of students to STEM skills and content.

“I think understanding science is really important for making decisions as a society,” Randle said. “If we’re expecting them to do more science at the upper grades, they need a foundation for how science works.”

Related: New standards get kids in California excited about science

All of these institutions are participating in a six-month fellowship program designed by 100Kin10, an organization that fosters collaborative efforts among nonprofits, foundations and academic institutions to get 100,000 STEM teachers into American schools by 2021. The program kicked off in May in Houston, where fellows started discussing ways their organizations could support each other in tackling the common problem of insufficient STEM education in preschool through third grade.

“I think understanding science is really important for making decisions as a society. If we’re expecting them to do more science at the upper grades, they need a foundation for how science works.”

“A lot of us are existing in systems where there are a lot of roadblocks to doing things outside the box,” said Sam Seidel, student experience lab director at the Business Innovation Factory in Rhode Island. Last year, he played a big role in organizing the fellowship program and he’s helping to run it for a second time this year. He sees this fellowship as an opportunity for organizations to get into a “vulnerable, open mindset” and work through creative solutions to big challenges without having to worry about whether or not an idea is too crazy to work.

Sessions at the second meeting of the fellowship, held in New York City last week, focused on helping fellows design a prototype of a project or program that they could implement in their organization. The fellows will meet again in September to share final products and get additional feedback from their peers and design coaches. Some fellows will go on to apply for funding to launch the programs incubated during the fellowship.

According to David Kanter, director of research and innovation at 100Kin10 and the main facilitator of last week’s planning and design sessions, a significant part of the fellowship – and the work of 100Kin10 as a whole – is giving fellows and partner organizations a chance to network with each other.

“We want to build these vertical alignments,” Kanter said. “Organizations are so used to working within their own set of goals and interests. They don’t often have ways to connect.”

This story about STEM in early childhood education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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