Underneath giant ABCs posters in a Minnetonka preschool classroom, colorful wall signs name off basic vocabulary of a different kind: slope, velocity and hypothesis.

They're words teacher Lucy Lyons sprinkles into her conversation with the preschoolers as they play with plastic dinosaurs or toy building blocks, hoping to plant awareness and interest about the sciences in the school's littlest learners.

The 4- and 5-year-olds may not master the lingo yet, but it's part of a growing movement to incorporate the sciences earlier in schools across Minnesota. This month, the Hopkins School District effort became the first known program in the state to introduce science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, to preschoolers.

"It is very unique," said Doug Paulson, STEM integration specialist at the state Department of Education, which assists with the ever-popular STEM programs. "Over the last six years, it's just been growing exponentially. The preschool focus is the next step in the STEM frontier."

The trickle down to preschool comes as STEM programs increase statewide, from nearly 40 programs in 2010 to 115 this year, largely spurred by added science standards and pressure to prepare students for college and emerging science careers. Across the metro area, elementary schools from Stillwater to St. Louis Park are embedding STEM into classes while others create their own variations. Prior Lake, for instance, will be the first in the state next year to have all elementary schools using E-STEM, an environmental science focus.

In Hopkins, a $9,000 grant from the district's nonprofit foundation is funding new materials like ramps or light tables and technology like magnifiers that give preschoolers a close-up look at objects on a smartboard. The program, which started this month, will expand later this year to all 360 Hopkins preschoolers.

"As STEM came to the forefront, we realized, what a perfect match," said Karen Tadewald, preschool program supervisor. "We're providing that foundation."

That doesn't mean teachers expect preschoolers to leave class knowing what velocity is, but they say hearing the terms will help prepare kids for the concepts later in elementary school. Some skeptics may just see normal preschool play in Lyons' class, but Paulson said that's not the point.

'A kid magnet'

"You're not going to find preschoolers being able to put together a formula," he said. "But they're starting to utilize that language."

In Lyons' classroom at Glen Lake Elementary, the science focus is as simple as naming a tyrannosaurus as kids dig up plastic dinosaurs in a sandbox or naming off bones on a plastic skeleton display. When Lyons brought in wooden ramps and colorful plastic balls, the kids made another discovery: Frustrated by the slow speed of the balls flying off the ramps flat on the floor, they eventually figured out that elevating the ramps did the trick.

"And it was like, 'Oh, my gosh, that went really fast,'" Lyons said. "They're a kid magnet, and they're a good learning thing."

It inspired 4-year-old Matt Haagensen. He got home and propped up books to elevate his train and race-car tracks to speed up the cars.

"Who knows?" his mom, Cheryl, said of whether the STEM terms will stick with her son long-term. "But it was interesting to see him try different things. It's showing him things that are piquing his curiosity. And as he encounters those concepts later, hopefully he'll have a positive attitude about it."

A selling point for students

Science in elementary school isn't new, but experts say it's moving from lectures and books to hands-on learning that emphasizes so-called "21st-century learning skills" like collaboration and critical thinking. For instance, the Works Museum in Bloomington and the Science Museum of Minnesota have materials at Glen Lake like magnets and circuits -- literally bringing the museums straight to the classroom.

The school is also among dozens of elementary schools in the Twin Cities using the "Engineering is Elementary" program, a national science education program that encourages kids to think like engineers, solving real-life scenarios. The program is in all Hopkins and Minneapolis elementary schools, funded by a four-year $2.4 million grant from the Cargill Foundation that ends this year. So far, analysts say the program has improved students' test scores and attitudes about pursuing careers in science or engineering.

"It's really been in response to how do we prepare our students to be college and career ready," Paulson said of the spread of STEM.

It also can be a marketing tool in the increasingly competitive era for schools to attract and retain students -- and the state aid that comes with them. For Haagensen, who's in finance, and her husband, a nurse, the extra science and math effort is more of a selling point than foreign language programs in other districts, persuading them to keep Matt in Hopkins long after preschool.

"You hear all over the place we have a science and engineering shortage," Haagensen said. "But whether he goes into science or engineering, I don't care. It's just necessary to have a good foundation."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib