Benefits of Investing in Early STEM Education - A look at the effects of Pre-K education in STEM and return on investment

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Benefits of Investing in Early STEM Education - A look at the effects of Pre-K education in  STEM and return on investment

by Brooke Fox, University of Colorado, Boulder

Chris Cochella, Founder of Brackitz

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is a growing topic of discussion in the U.S. According to the STEM Education Coalition, STEM jobs comprise 20% of all U.S. jobs, and job openings in STEM occupations outnumber unemployed persons 1.9 to one. STEM industries are understaffed, yet they represent massive economic opportunity.

For example, with the mean wage for engineers exceeds the all-occupation mean wage by $33,210, and have they higher job security at 3.8% unemployment.

Given the sizable opportunity in STEM positions, many organizations have taken action to increase STEM education in the U.S. Idaho, for example, recently established a new state office under the governor called the “STEM Action Center,” following the lead of states like Utah, which enacted a STEM Action Center in 2013 with a starting budget of $10 million dollars. In 2010, President Obama emphasized the importance of STEM education, stating “Leadership tomorrow depends on how we educate our students today, especially in science, technology, engineering and math.”

Currently, of 34 developed nations, in the  U.S.,  students 15 years old rank 21st in science test scores. Many attribute this to the lack of time spent on science in the classroom, with the average elementary school student only spending 2.6 hours per week on science.

2.6 hours per week on science? You’re kidding....

Pre-K Education:

Recently, several studies have been released that detail the importance of educational engagement with children before they begin Kindergarten. A study conducted by Voices for Utah Children, found that 238 preschoolers test scores indicated that they would need special education starting in Kindergarten. Yet only 7 were referred to special education after completing preschool.

Additionally, the widely cited High Scope Perry Preschool Study put participants that were considered at risk of failing high school into a high quality preschool program. Over the course of the participants’ lifetime, the study found that they were 20% more likely to have incomes above $20,000 than their non-preschool peers.

Additionally, they were more likely to graduate high school, and less likely to be arrested. Countless other studies have confirmed the results of these two, making a strong case for the effects of pre-elementary education on long term success.

STEM and Early Education:

One state is truly on the cutting edge of early education STEM integration. In an effort to combine the lasting effects of preschool and the national need for STEM workers, Minnesota has commissioned state wide programs aimed at enhancing STEM learning among student Pre-K through 12.  The “Preschool Stem” program was created in 2012 for three to five-year olds to get a head start in STEM education.

The Boston Children’s museum also put out a guide for teaching STEM concepts to preschoolers, which focuses on creating the right environment, indicating a growing emphasis on the need for STEM education prior to the kindergarten years.

STEM and Block Play:

One study, published in Child Development, indicated that higher spatial assembly skills in three year old children,  correlated with higher mathematical skills. As spatial skills are improved with block play, the study advances that, “Block building in particular, offers a potential route to study and improve these skills in children prior to formal mathematics instruction” (Verdine et al, 2013).

There is also, in laying the foundation for STEM education, a return on investment in the before mentioned Voices for Utah Children study. In this study, it was estimated that the cost savings in special education alone, over three years for the three cohorts of preschoolers, was $963,938. Additionally, the High Scope Perry study estimated $195,621 in public savings (welfare, etc.), and a $12.90 return per dollar invested.

Additionally, impressive results were produced by a cost benefit analysis of three states that provide state funded prekindergarten programs. In Massachusetts, the estimated return on investment was 1.18%, and totaled $105.28 million in 2005. In Wisconsin, the return on investment was 1.16% and total benefit was $131.68 million. Lastly, Ohio’s prekindergarten program yielded a net benefit of $299.19 million, and a return on investment of 1.62%.

The research overwhelmingly suggests that investing in a child’s prekindergarten education benefits not only the future success of the child, but also society overall.

Additionally, the importance of STEM education shows evidence that higher levels of representative block construction correlates with higher reading abilities. It appears that the relationship between block play and early development of spatial skills implies that integration of block play into preschool curriculum is a necessary step for success. 

Nationally, there is a growing discussion about efforts to get children better educated in science, technology, engineering and math. Engaging preschool students in activities that increase spatial assembly abilities has been proven to increase math skills and potentially reduce the gap in their engagement with STEM subjects and future careers.

STEM and Preschool Funding:

According to the President’s FY 2014 Budget Request for the U.S. Department of Education, a proposed program titled “Preschool for All” would invest $750 billion over the next 10 years in states for the funding of high-quality preschool education programs. Funding for this program has been maintained in the FY 2015 budget proposal. Additionally, funding for Preschool Development Grants, Early Intervention Programs for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities, and Preschool Grants for Children with disabilities totals $1.2 billion.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, 1.3 million children attended state funded preschool, representing 4% of three year olds and 28% of four year olds, after a decrease of over 9,000 students in 2013. When private institutions are included, this number increases to a total of 54.9% of three and four year olds enrolled part time or full time in 2013 (Census). Efforts such as "Preschool For All" are aimed at increasing the percentage of students enrolled in preschool education, especially low-income participation.  Students who begin Kindergarten without any preschool education are often already disadvantaged academically when compared with their peers.

The President’s budget request outlines the budget proposal for investments in STEM education: six initiatives totaling $450 million in investment have been proposed to consolidate current programs and target four areas including K-12 instruction, undergraduate education, graduate fellowships and extracurricular education activities. There is no mention in either document, however, of federal funding of STEM education for preschoolers. In  2013, the average state spending per prekindergarten student was $4,026.00, given a return of 8.2% in cost savings according to the Voices for Utah Children report, a more conservative estimate than the High Scope Perry Preschool study, where just $10 was spent on the 4.4 million enrolled preschoolers, equal to approximately 10% of the proposed federal spending on STEM initiative.  A 366.6 million in cost savings for society would result from these investments. Additionally, given Ohio’s 1.62% return on investment, the same amount spend per student would result in $72 million return on investment.

While it appears that upfront costs of implementing STEM activities for such young children may not seem well-suited, it is in fact probably the most effective use of education investment.


Undoubtedly, the U.S. is in desperate need of quality Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education so that it may fill the need for professionals in these fields. A viable solution to this gap seems to lie in preschool block play, as it helps develop early spatial skills that are necessary for STEM occupations. Investment in preschoolers specifically, appears to have the greatest return on investment both societally and individually. Therefore, society benefits from engaging young prekindergarten children in STEM based activities as a means of equipping with the necessary skills to be successful future engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.  Moreover the potential return on investment for parents and institutions seems to hold obvious opportunity. 

Link to article:



“Children Ages 3 To 4 Not Attending Preschool.” Kids Count Data Center. N.p., Feb. 2015. Web.

“Does It Pay to Invest in Preschool for All? Analyz- ing Return-on-Investment in Three States | Nieer. org.” Does It Pay to Invest in Preschool for All? Ana- lyzing Return-on-Investment in Three States | Nieer. org. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Fiscal Year 2015 Budget of the U.S. Government.” (2015): n. pag. Web.

“HighScope Perry Preschool Study.” HighScope Per- ry Preschool Study. N.p., n.d. Web.

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“Idaho Lawmakers Vote to Set up New ‘STEM Ac- tion Center’ - The Spokesman-Review.” Spokesman. com. N.p., n.d. Web.

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Dubno, Janis. A Sustainable Financing Model High Quality Preschool for At-Risk Children Results from the Granite School District in Utah. Voices for Utah Children, n.d. Web.

Hanline, Mary Frances, Sande Milton, and Pamela C. Phelps. “The Relationship Between Preschool Block Play And Reading And Maths Abilities In Early Elementary School: A Longitudinal Study
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Scientists., Tural, and • Preschool Is The Perfect Time To D. Welcome! Are You Ready for Some Fun? (n.d.): n. pag. Boston Children’s Museum. Web.

Verdine, B. N., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Newcombe, N. S., Filipowicz, A. T. and Chang, A. (2014), Deconstructing Building Blocks: Preschool- ers’ Spatial Assembly Performance Relates to Early Mathematical Skills. Child Development, 85: 1062– 1076. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12165

Wascalus, Jacob. “From Preschool To High School, Programs Aim To Close Minnesota’s STEM Achievement Gap. (Cover Story).” Fedgazette (2015): 1-5. Business Source Complete. Web. 

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1 Response

Brian Clair
Brian Clair

September 30, 2020

Today’s students are tomorrow’s pioneers. Occupations in STEM-related professions are probably the quickest developing and best paid of the 21st century, and they frequently have the best potential for work development. The most ideal approach to guarantee future achievement and life span is to ensure that the students are well versed in these subjects. Building a strong STEM Foundation through a balanced educational plan is the most ideal approach to guarantee that understudies are presented to math, science, and innovation all through their instructive profession. “If we want a society and culture that work for everyone, we need innovation in our relationships along with innovation in the STEM fields and STEM education”. The craze for STEM Learning has now significantly increased in young students. The universities are coming up with various STEM Learning Programs in collaboration with other institutions & researchers.

The STEM Learning Ecosystems have a vast potential to teach the young students in masses. Every year students are applying for these programs in a big number because of the real-time practice and to represent their talents. As an educator my worry is to build caring (educational or not) relationships with my students in order to improve their curiosity and research skills. There are ideas, concepts, and practices in the maker movement that help me to improve the participation of my students in the creation of shared knowledge. I mean the idea of remix, share designs, open tools, the constructionism, the community, the philosophy of DWO, etc. But there are several attitudes that are not helping me at all, for example, the need for the latest super powerful technology gadget as the main concern, the vision of technology like exclusively functional(not poetic) and the focus on the product forgetting that in learning the thing that really matters is the process.

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