elementary school

FIU Study of Toddlers Aims to Increase STEM Involvement

Parents of preschoolers usually have one primary concern when it comes to their children’s education, and that’s getting them ready for kindergarten. According to researchers at FIU, moms and dads should be looking way past elementary school and thinking of possible careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Parents can put their toddlers on the path toward STEM success simply by using lots and lots of spatial language, which means words which describe shapes, sizes, and features.

"Things that you generally would hear if you're putting a puzzle together. You can imagine a parent helping a child put together a jigsaw puzzle – they're really pointing out spatial features like the corner piece or the border,” said Dr. Shannon Pruden, assistant professor of psychology at FIU’s Center for Children and Families.

The more we expose kids to spatial language and concepts, the more they build their spatial cognition skills, such as the ability to visualize objects from all sides.

"The reason why it's so good to have good spatial cognition skills is because it actually has been linked in research to entry into STEM,” Pruden explained.

Not just entry, but success in high school and college in STEM subjects can be traced back to being able to mentally rotate objects and shapes.

"People have actually studied individuals' ability to mentally rotate objects and found direct links between mental rotation in adults and their ability to succeed in the STEM disciplines,” Pruden said.

So the linkage is there, the problem is that according to Dr. Pruden’s latest study, boys hear more spatial language than girls.

She and her team studied dozens of children, ranging in age from 14 to 46 months, recording interactions between the kids and their parents.

"We'd really like to see parents use more spatial language with their little girls because we do think that potentially could be a factor that explains some of the gaps we see between males and females in the STEM disciplines,” Pruden said.

Women and girls are historically under-represented in fields like engineering and computer programming. There are many potential reasons to explain that phenomenon. The researchers at FIU think they may have hit on one factor that society can change, one family at a time.

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