Image: Getty / Two Students Building Electronics
STEM education, which encompasses the subjects Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, has been the focus of international pedagogical research in recent years. Policymakers, educators, families, and employers, are all concerned with how to educate and develop a rising class of adults who are equipped with the tools the need to take on our modern problems and economy. There are still plenty of barriers to providing adequate access to STEM, but focusing on the earliest years to build a strong foundation is gaining near universal support — and research suggests that this approach could have some powerful benefits.
From Test Scores to Tolerance: The Many Benefits of STEM in Early Education
In 2017, The Irish Times reported on a recent call for students to begin engaging in STEM coursework earlier to foster interest, and, eventually, higher performance on both standardized exams as well as careers. Interestingly, this article, and much other current research in the field, makes a direct link between early preparation and later success in career and academics. What’s more, recommendations from the Early Childhood STEM Working Group suggest that “many STEM activities fundamentally lend themselves to inclusion, as they often give children direct experiences with the natural and human-made world.”
In other words, implementing STEM approaches in early education not only can help students perform better on standardized tests and in careers, but an early start in STEM can also have additional benefits that may help reduce inequities in the workforce later on.
As a 2017 policy report from this group makes clear, STEM education is not “culturally neutral.” Assuming that all students, regardless of country of origin, race, gender, and so on will have innate curiosity about the natural world is absolutely appropriate, but, “educators must continue to strive for cultural inclusivity in STEM by supporting a culture of collaboration and teamwork.” By approaching STEM through an explicitly collaborative lens as early as primary school, can “help all children develop familiarity with the materials and terminology they use. Children can also learn to participate and identify as scientists, engineers, or mathematicians through exposure to STEM role models representing different genders, races, and cultural affiliations.”
Focusing on STEM in the earliest grades may also lead to a shift for primary school educators, and opportunities for professional development. A 2016 report by the Royal Academy of Engineering notes “it is also important that primary schools provide an appropriate, accurate and inspiring STEM education to children from an early age, through ensuring those coordinating science or with responsibility for science are appropriately trained even if themselves not science specialists.” While some other research suggests that educator fear around under preparedness leads to missed opportunities for engaging students in STEM, the reality is concerning. As of 2016 in the UK, the report notes “only 5% of primary school teachers have a qualification at A level or above in mathematics or science.”
If we place our collective will towards better preparing primary school teachers to guide students through rigorous, engaging STEM concepts as early as primary school, we can not only make an impact on the next generation of adults, but also the current generation of educators.
Ideas and Approaches for Incorporating STEM into the Early Childhood Classroom
While there is some variety in the current research into STEM in the primary classroom, for the most part, experts across the globe tend to agree on several key areas, including the idea that young children are naturally inclined towards a STEM approach. One 2017 report emphasizes the importance of educators and parents identifying the existing components of a STEM education that are already present in quality early childhood education: “STEM learning is already present in classrooms and can be emphasized to both teachers and students. Teachers should be trained to think of STEM as mutually inclusive of their other teaching domains and encouraged to weave STEM seamlessly into their existing curricula and play times.”
This mindset can also help early childhood educators identify their existing strengths to that they can build on those skills and not “wait” to start implementing STEM until they are fully retrained.
At the 2016 Early Childhood Australia National Conference, one presentationoffered a range of suggestions for tapping into the natural curiosity of young students. The presenters encourage educators to keep STEM in the early childhood classroom “simple and fun” and suggest that teachers need not feel intimidated by a perceived lack of scientific knowledge or technical equipment. Rather, if educators build on existing resources and questions, and then make explicit the links to new learning, young children will leave the early childhood classroom with a stronger foundation to take with them through the rest of their academic career. Some of their suggestions include:
- Ages 3–5: “bubble printing, ramp rolling, water walls, building houses for pigs (or other fairy tale themes), gardening projects, and bridge building.”
- Ages 5–8: “Nature prints, Bee Bot city crossing, real word problems, vegetable garden, water collection system.”
For educators looking for an approach that feels more 21st century, Victoria University commissioned a report in 2016 with the goal of identifying useful STEM apps for early childhood education, as well as gaps in the existing offerings. The report offers a table of 45 apps broken down into various categories, plus reviews of their utility in the classroom, and also acknowledges that an app alone is not enough to adequately engage young children in the STEM fields.
Across the globe, the Boston Children’s Museum offers additional approaches for early education including one important shift in the way early childhood educators can and should engage with student questions: “one strategy for asking great questions is focusing on “what” instead of “why.”” While “why” questions have a “right” answer, “what” questions prompt students to focus on what is observable and what actions can be taken to help solve the problem, for example: “What happened there? What did you try? What are some of the ideas you have talked about that you haven’t tried yet?”
By approaching STEM education from the ground up, we may yet enjoy significant shifts in our students, our schools, and our culture’s appreciation for innovative and scientific problem solving.
This article was originally appeared in Medium on September 30th, 2018.