SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Stem Action Center’s Innovation Hub was loud with kids building and exploring for the first time this week. As the students created slingshots, they didn’t even realize they were learning.
Like most programs, leaders with the Utah Stem Action Center had to get creative during the pandemic since they could no longer go into classrooms, or even host kids to help them incorporate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) into their lives.
The Stem Action Center developed the To-Learn kit program which focused on math skills for early childhood education.
“Essentially, it was a way for us to tackle early math learning,” David Wicai, Utah Stem Action Center Marketing and Communications Manager, said.
A study by the University of California Irvine shows children who become skilled in math early in life do better in school overall and are more likely to graduate high school. Students with consistent issues with math in elementary school were 13 percent less likely to graduate high school and almost 30 percent less likely to go on to college, the study showed.
The latest data from Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence (SAGE) state testing from the Utah State Board of Education shows only 46 percent of Utah students are considered proficient in math.
“What we found was, early math learning was something that didn’t have a lot of infrastructure,” Wicai said.
Incorporating STEM education early sets students up for academic success, according to the School of Education. STEM education also helps students be better prepared for jobs in STEM fields.
The pilot program consisted of 500 kits being offered up in Tooele in summer 2020. Now, a year later through state funding and private donations, the program is expending to 4,500 kits in Davis, Salt Lake and Weber counties.
First-grade teacher Becca Hall saw the successes of program firsthand.
“It really helped with that hands-on approach because they remembered what they got to do over the summer, and they asked for that again. I think I need this to help me with my math today,” she said.
Data collected from those who participated in the to-learn program shows about 70 percent of kids agreed with the statement “I like doing math” after utilizing the kit. About 76 percent of students also said the activities helped them practice counting making new shapes and patterns, according to the Utah Stem Action Center.
“A lot of the successes were revolving around basic mathematical concepts: patterns, shapes, counting, understanding units of measurements, things like that,” Wicai said.
The kits had a very positive impact on students, Hall said.
“They had more willingness to try something new and they didn’t have that same feeling when you say, now it is time for math. They were excited for math instead of feeling overwhelmed by math or like it was something they couldn’t accomplish,” she said.
The biggest limitation to the program is reaching rural areas and other areas of the state, Wicai said.
The kits are handed out through community partners, such as libraries. The Utah Stem Action Center does offer a variety of other kits and curriculum for Utah parents, kids and teachers. For more information, click here.
The Utah Stem Action Center was established by the state Legislature in 2013.