- The Stem Prep Academy attracts families from around Philadelphia interested in a STEM-based curriculum for preschoolers.
- Math and science introduction during early childhood education has benefits across academic disciplines according to education research.
- Founder Renee Harris also runs Esteem Girls Inc., a non-profit that encourages girls of color to study STEM.
STEM professional turned public school educator Renee Harris runs a STEM-based preschool in Philadelphia called the Stem Prep Academy as part of her mission to introduce the discipline to underrepresented children in Philadelphia.
A West Philly native and an alumna of the first HBCU in the country, Cheyney University, Harris believes children exposed to STEM in early childhood are more likely to be interested in pursuing higher education or professional development in science, technology, engineering or math.
“What we offer apparently they don’t offer in many places,” Harris said, noting that Stem Prep Academy is the only preschool of its kind in Philadelphia.
She used research from organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in deciding to create her STEM school specifically for preschool-aged children. In its publication, NAEYC says that among preschool-aged children, knowledge of math is a better predictor than early reading or attention skills for later academic achievement and pointed to a study that found the strongest predictor of preschoolers’ math learning to be an educator’s belief that math education was appropriate for preschool children.
Moreover, the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education states that early learning in math and science promotes socio-emotional development and supports development in all academic subjects as a child gets older.
When she opened the boutique school in 2020, Harris only had two students. Two years later, the school has 30 students aged three to five who come from all around Philadelphia as well as families that travel from neighboring counties. She has hired two instructors, allowing her to focus on curriculum development and serve as the director.
Harris’ curriculum uses a hands-on approach but unlike what some may assume, it’s not all building volcanoes and making slime. The curriculum is developed using Pennsylvania’s learning standards for early childhood and integrates STEM into each key learning area.
For example, as part of the language and literacy development component, preschoolers will learn the alphabet, which Harris uses as an opportunity to introduce new vocabulary. For the letter “A” students will learn the word architect. In a subsequent lesson, students will learn about building a city, culminating in an activity utilizing cereal boxes to design a structure.
Before opening Stem Prep Academy, Harris’ work focused on STEM education for girls. She started her non-profit Esteem Girls Inc. in 2016 while working in the pharmacy industry but feeling unfulfilled with her career. Esteem Girls’ mission is to support girls of color and address the disparate standardized test scores among female students in grades 3-8 from the School District of Philadelphia. When she first started out, Harris was operating the non-profit out of the basement of a church, but now in addition to Stem Prep Academy, she offers tutoring services, a summer camp and authored an interactive workbook.
Having worked as a middle school teacher after a career in the pharmacy industry and before opening the Stem Prep Academy, Harris said she wanted teaching to be at the core of the school rather than daycare services.
“The way that I think is different and it actually helps me,” she said.
The school is funded through tuition, but some financial assistance may be provided. Harris is looking to fundraise to offer scholarships for families who cannot afford the cost.
“I want underrepresented groups. I want families from different walks of life,” she said.
Harris said her ultimate goal is to have a STEM school up to eighth grade, but for now, the plan is to expand to a kindergarten classroom in September 2023.
“I’m just going to work my way up,” she said.