Children are naturally curious. They start learning through discovery at a very young age. And a child’s learning environment and interactions with adults will significantly shape their growth and development throughout life.
Studies indicate that STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is important to children’s success in school and their ability to get good jobs as adults. Starting young is especially important.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop New America examined the STEM educational landscape and produced a report titled “STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood.” The report cites a 2016 study of 7,750 children from kindergarten through eighth grade in which researchers found that the earlier children learned about the world, the more successful they became in science. Conversely, children with low levels of general knowledge were struggling with science by third grade and were still struggling by eighth grade.
The “STEM Starts Early” findings also indicate that children demonstrate a clear readiness to engage in STEM learning early in life. Early childhood is a critical period for neurological or brain development as the human brain grows to 90% of its adult size by age five. “Brain and skills-building experiences early in life are critical for child development, and high-quality early STEM experiences can support children’s growth across areas as diverse as executive function and literacy development.”
There were five key findings from the report:
- While parents and teachers are enthusiastic about early STEM learning, they must know more and have better support to be effective.
- Teachers who work with preschool children must receive more robust training and professional development to provide developmentally appropriate STEM instruction.
- Early STEM learning can be promoted when parents and technology create a web for learning, connecting school, home and other learning environments like libraries and museums.
- Research and public policies play a critical role in the presence and quality of STEM learning. And when researchers, policymakers and teachers maintain a sustained dialogue with one another, everyone benefits.
- To gain public support for early STEM learning, an empirically-tested, strategic communications effort is needed to convey an accurate understanding of developmental science.
100Kin10 for STEM
100Kin10 is a national network committed to training and retaining 100,000 STEM teachers over 10 years. They work with top academic institutions, nonprofits, foundations, companies and government agencies.
One area of their focus for STEM in 2019 is ensuring STEM education for young children. Partners of 100Kin10, like the Museum of Science Boston and the University of New Hampshire, are supporting this work by developing programs to train elementary school teachers to effectively teach digital literacy and computer science. In a January 2019 article, 100Kin10 stated, “In recent years, there’s been mounting evidence that early exposure to STEM education leads students to be more successful, not only in high school and college but more broadly throughout life. Early education in science and math, in particular, have been shown to predict socioeconomic status well into adulthood.”
Parent Involvement in Early STEM Education
In the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop study, parents revealed that they were anxious about their own STEM knowledge. They were concerned about passing that lack of confidence on to their children. By communicating clearly with parents and engaging them in the topics and skills that their children are learning in school, teachers can alleviate some of this anxiety. And when parents, teachers, libraries, museums and others in the community become STEM aware, it helps to engage children in STEM in all aspects of their daily lives.
The National Science Teachers Association issued a position statement on the importance of active parental involvement in STEM education. Parents can provide their children opportunities for creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and resourcefulness by involving them in simple activities like cooking, gardening, repairing a bike or planning a trip. Other recommendations include frequent visits to museums, parks, zoos, nature centers and other science-rich sites in the community. It is not necessary for parents to have all the answers to their children’s questions, but to actively participate as they embrace learning together.
STEM and Technology
A key ingredient in successful early STEM education is access to technology at home. Teachers can identify and suggest appropriate STEM online educational activities parents and children can do together at home. In the classroom, they can make effective use of digital tools to provide active learning opportunities for students. However, access to tablets and smartphones is not enough. An emphasis on how to use these devices in a way that benefits learning is critical for STEM success.
Becoming a STEM Educator
Southern Oregon University offers a 100% online program for educators who want to earn a Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education. This program prepares students for leadership roles as a STEM teacher or a curriculum specialist for either PK-20 or informal education systems.