On a warm and sunny morning, a dozen precocious pre-kindergarteners at New Liberty Child Care in South Los Angeles were busy using their ingenuity and an assortment of makeshift materials to construct a mini-recycling park.

What appeared on the surface to be random play was actually an introduction to critical thinking exercises that will lay the foundation for a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

“If they learn critical thinking skills now at the age of 3, 4 and 5, when they’re 15 and 16, they won’t be able to solve those problems any other way,” said Diann Fauntleroy, director of education for Drew Child Development Corporation (Drew CDC) which operates New Liberty and five other pre-school childcare centers in and around South Los Angeles. “They will be equipped to use cognitive thinking, instead of guns.”

Drew CDC is a private, not-for-profit agency that provides education and supportive services for at-risk youth from underserved, culturally diverse families. The agency recently entered into an agreement with the Children’s Center at Caltech (CCC), located on the campus of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech is the home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

The partnership between Drew CDC and the Children’s Center at Caltech is not unique—there are many programs around the country focused on STEM education for K-12 minority youth—however, the focus on pre-K children in underserved communities is an idea whose time has come, according to Fauntleroy.

“We’re thinking that by bringing pre-K STEM education to Watts and South Central, it will be a novel idea. So far it seems to be. We’re hoping that this is the beginning of a model for communities of color.”

According to Drew CDC research, 56 percent of their service area is Hispanic, 14 percent is African American, and the average annual family income is just above $16,000.

Most of CCC’s slots are reserved for toddlers and preschoolers of faculty, students and staff of the two institutions. The Children’s Center uses the scientific method to begin developing critical thinking skills in infants as young as six months old. Tuition at CCC ranges from $14,400 to $18,600 per year for full-time care, depending on the age of the child.

CCC Executive Director Susan Wood and her staff will train Fauntleroy and Drew CDC teachers how to incorporate the scientific method—ask a question, guess an answer, experiment, observe and come to a conclusion. Wood designed a curriculum that focuses on allowing young children to predict how something will work, test their ideas and observe the results as a part of their “play.”

A basic tenant of the scientific method is that, “Children should be able to read the environment, and the environment should instruct,” said Wood.

During playtime, children are asked open-ended questions such as, “What do you think will happen if you do that?” and “Why do you think that happened?” and encouraged to come up with their own answers.

At the conclusion of the training sessions, Fauntleroy, who has a master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from Clark Atlanta University, will develop a specific curriculum for Drew CDC. She estimates that the training process and creating the curriculum will take approximately one year.

“I think we have to formulate the curriculum a little differently for the Black and Brown children because they may not have had the exposure to critically think about things,” said Fauntleroy. “With our current creative curriculum, kids just don’t get that type of activity.”

The new curriculum will include experimenting with a variety of objects, recognizing spatial and sequential relationships and patterns and discovering results and effects based on an object’s weight or shape, etc.

The agency expects to make a substantial investment to introduce STEM education. Classrooms will need to be equipped with materials that support cognitive thinking such as axles, pulleys, magnets, magnifying glasses and microscopes.

A study by the Institute of Education Sciences entitled “The Dollars and Cents of Investing Early: Cost-Benefit Analysis in Early Care and Education” looked at the long-term societal benefits of early childhood education in cognitive curricula such as STEM.

Early education studies as well as neuroscience and developmental psychology strongly suggest the first few years of life are critical for learning in both cognitive and noncognitive domains. Investments in early education are thus vital to the success of later investments made in K-12 schools. When faced with a fixed budget, policymakers should reallocate their investments from later years to early years.

Drew CDC will roll out the STEM curriculum in all of its six child care centers. It is the agency’s hope that the introduction of STEM education will make the youngsters enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering and math and that enthusiasm will parlay into the next generation of minority engineers and scientists and mathematicians.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show occupations related to STEM are projected to grow to more than nine million in the next six years. By 2033, the year Drew CDC preschoolers graduate from college and prepare to enter the job market, the number of STEM-related jobs will account for more than 60 percent of the workforce. STEM occupations will also pay 26 percent more than non-STEM occupations.

“It’s a new millennium. There’s all kinds of things going on with technology, engineering and science. If you don’t introduce it to the children, they won’t know,” said Fauntleroy.

“You never know, the next Nobel Prize winner may come from New Liberty Child Care.”

This story was written with support from New America Media’s Early Childhood Education Fellowship program.