Early STEM Benefits Both Students and Educators

Image: Getty / Two Students Building Electronics

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

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.

Image: Getty / Students Engaging In STEM Learning

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?”

Image: Getty / Students Problem Solving Using A 3D Printer


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.

Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…

Can gamification solve the STEM talent gap?

Image: Getty / Wooden Geometric Game

The talent gap within STEM is a constant problem but is gaming the answer?

Written by: Andrew B. Raupp / @stemceo

The global movement to increase access to STEM educational opportunities, and ultimately increase the flow of talent into the pipeline for professions in the STEM field, is continuing to grow.

Countries across the world are devoting resources and strategic thought to create meaningful plans for implementation, which, in some cases, means a total overhaul of how schools have traditionally approached science and mathematics education.

Image: shareconnectinspire.blogspot.com

Take Naoimh Riordan’s after-school programme, Sparks, at Rockboro Primary School in Cork, for example. This after-school offering offers a range of subjects and activities to engage students in not just the traditional STEM subjects, but also the arts as well.

The courses are taught using activity-based learning for an hour each week over a 10-week term. And one of the major tools in Ms. Riordan’s toolbox? Play. She and her team of tutors use the immersive game platform Breakout EDU to engage students and fuel their dynamic lessons.

To best leverage the growing momentum of STEM innovation, individuals such as Riordan, as well as school systems and nations as a whole, must continue to focus on the moving target of best practices and draw from a broad range of research-proven inspiration to deliver the kind of pedagogical changes that STEM growth truly requires.

One such practice that may feel like it’s come out of left field? Gamification.

Gamification 101: Not just for ‘gamers’ any more

Image: Getty / Gamifying The Classroom

Gamification is a term that’s become popularised over the last decade, particularly in both educational and corporate settings. While the most simplistic definition refers to a means of incorporating more game-like play into the classroom, gamification actually encompasses a broader movement to tap into some powerful human psychology.

In both classroom and corporate culture, gamification can be used as a motivating tool. For example, students and employees alike can work towards ‘badges’ of achievement on learning and/or employment tasks. Or, teachers can incorporate friendly competition in order to elevate STEM-focused group work into a more meaningful experience that can mimic the pressures of the ‘real world’.

The US has been quick to embrace gamification, in part because American young people are arguably primed for this approach because of their access to gaming culture.

As reported in an article published by the University of Central Florida, a whopping “97pc of 12–17-year-olds play video games, and Americans spent more than $15bn on them in 2013”.

In addition, Americans have been talking about gamification in corporate culture for years. A 2013 blogpost notes that “since the beginning of the gamification industry in 2010, over 350 companies have launched major gamification projects”.

These are major companies devoting time and resources to incorporating game strategy into a range of corporate activities — and to great results. The post goes on to note that companies such as “Spotify and LivingSocial have replaced the dreaded annual review with a mobile, gamified solution — with more than 90pc of employees participating voluntarily”.

Increasing engagement through games or game-like activities may seem bizarre, or even childish, but the evidence is clear: gamification can not only help expose children to technological processes, seemingly without them realising that they’re actually learning, but it can also be an important tool towards shifting culture and motivation.

As a recent piece in Forbes put it, it’s important to remember this key fact: “Gamification is 75pc psychology and 25pc technology.”

Ireland: A country poised for major STEM opportunities

Incorporating gamification into STEM educational approaches can help countries poised on the verge of STEM expansion to see STEM initiatives as not only crucial to their future economic success, but also kind of fun.

Ireland is one such example of a country that has put a lot of great emphasis on how to better handle STEM education. The STEM Education Review Group, led by Prof Brian MacCraith of Dublin City University, recently put out a report with nearly 50 actions that will help stakeholders collectively execute on their ambitions to elevate the impact of STEM education.

The Government then prioritised 21 actions for initial priority implementation, and these actions are focused on increasing qualified STEM instructors, increasing access to professional development for these educators, addressing inequity in STEM education, and increasing the focus on both enquiry-based learning and learning that happens outside the bounds of the traditional classroom (including extracurricular events, online learning and more).

The recommendations of the report come not a moment too soon. Ireland has seen a drop in both CAO points needed to qualify for a university-level STEM course, as well as overall performance in math and science, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

‘Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn’

The latest PISA report revealed that Ireland’s ranking has dropped from 9th in science in 2012, to 13th. A statement released from the Ibec head of education policy, Tony Donohoe, made clear that stagnation or decreasing performance simply won’t jive with the countries priorities around STEM.

“The overall performance in science and mathematics is not good enough to support our economic ambition,” he said. “A major improvement in science and mathematics outcomes at school level is required if we want to compete at the highest levels.”

The focus on improvement in Ireland is clear, and the policy recommendations are both thorough and well-considered. But to make major gains in STEM education, it seems, going outside the bounds of what’s traditionally been done can make a world of difference.

Enter gamification. Incorporating game strategy in the classroom can help motivate not only students, but also teachers. Instead of STEM feeling like some mysterious or foreign presence in the classroom, students and educators alike can embrace the opportunity to do something different and challenging, all while improving the cutting-edge skills needed to truly thrive in our 21st-century global market.

Image: Getty / Gamification of Education


For further evidence on how gamification can increase engagement in STEM, look no further than the Smithsonian Science Education Center. In a post outlining five of the largest benefits to incorporating gamification, the Smithsonian notes that: “As gamification becomes more of a buzzword, it’s important not to write it off.”

According to the post, using games and game-like activities can aid in both cognitive and physical development, increase engagement and boost accessibility for students who may not always participate in traditional settings, and, finally, it’s a flexible enough approach to spill out of the classroom and into extracurriculars and real-world settings.

Back in Cork, Riordan, whose work was recently selected to be featured as part of the TED-Ed Innovative Educators cohort, said that she’s seen the power of interactive gameplay in her classroom, and often thinks of this famous quote from Benjamin Franklin to explain the impact of gamification for her students: “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Gamification is far from a silver bullet but, when used as part of a comprehensive strategy to get serious about how to make STEM engaging, it can help actively involve students in their education and help them to score major points, both in the classroom and on the global stage.

This article was originally featured in Silicon Republic on October 2nd, 2017.

Andrew B. Raupp is the Founder / Executive Director @stemdotorg

“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…