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Expert says research points to value of STEM with youngest children

Beth Van Meeteran shared her expertise on the benefits of implementing STEM and literacy integration in early childhood to an overflow crowd at the Homewood Science Center on Thursday, April 20.

Van Meeteran, an early childhood educator for 24 years with a research focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), serves as director of the Iowa Regents’ Center for Early Developmental Education and teaches early literacy courses for the University of Northern Iowa (UNI).  

Van Meeteran worked for 18 years as an early childhood teacher in rural Iowa. In 2001, she accepted a position as a first grade lead instructor at the Freeburg Early Childhood school, an experimental early childhood research school for UNI. 

“Even with 18 years as a teacher under my belt,” Van Meeteran said, “the kids at Freeburg are who taught me what teaching and learning is.”  


Freeburg was part of a federal program aimed at preschool children ages 3, 4 and 5 from low-income families designed to prepare children for success in school through early STEM learning.

Van Meeteran said there was an initial period of adjustment at the experimental school, which had just four classrooms. 

“Each room had two cameras, a mirrored wall, six microphones in each room, not including the one I was wearing,” she said. “We never knew when we were being recorded for research purposes.” 

Freeburg’s method was to teach children based on the natural way they learn. How each child reaches and forms their “aha” moment allows educators to employ and implement STEM. By seeing it from the child’s perspective, their “eyes” becomes more apparent.

During Van Meeteran’s time at Freeburg, she utilized ramps and pathways to guide first- and second-graders in an interactive approach to learn about force and motion. She said it was important that children develop “engineering habits of mind, those dispositions an engineer needs.” 

“Supporting children during the engagement is crucial,” Van Meeteran said, “not showing them or fixing it for them, rather making sure they have the materials or provide ones they need, and as they ‘engineer’ (and) enhance their understanding of what is in the world and how it works, that’s the science they’re interested in.” 

By having children solve problems independently rather than fixing problems for them it allows young children to use their creativity in engineering, she said. In the process, they learn science. 

“Teachers who have had the professional learning and experiences saw children with IEPs (Individualized Education Program) perform exceptionally on their reading assessments with STEM implemented,” Van Meeteran said.

The Homewood Science Center, 18022 Dixie Highway, offers free STEM Saturdays to families from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Additional programs, events, and resources on STEM literacy are available on the Homewood Science Center’s website.

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