In the National Spotlight
Since the inception of STEM Education in 2001 by the U.S. National Science Foundation, our nation’s workforce has been directly linked to how well we expose and educate students of all ages to learn content, practice effective pedagogy, and become critical, creative, collaborative, and communicative stakeholders. The preparation of STEM-literate students has focused primarily on middle and high school settings. It was not until 2015 when the importance of Early Childhood STEM Education gained attention, along with its direct connection to future academic achievements and interests in STEM disciplines and adult career or job attainments.
It is important to build a strong foundation for STEM experiences during the formative years of cognitive and social development of a student’s life. With successful, research-based learning experiences early in life, students will progress to middle and high school with the groundwork in STEM learning and practice. STEM education exposure should begin in the early childhood years, birth to age eight.
The Importance of Early Childhood STEM Many people believe that “real” STEM learning doesn’t occur until children are older and that exposure to STEM concepts in early childhood is only about laying a foundation for the serious STEM learning that takes place later (More Than a Foundation, 2017). This quote could not be farther from the truth!Early Childhood STEM learning lays the foundation for STEM literacy and proficiency because students’ interest in science and math typically develops early in life. All young children have the intellectual capability and capacity to learn. At an early age, students’ interest in STEM disciplines naturally occurs because of their innate sense of wonder and ability to explore and acquire knowledge. Since this occurs early in life, the need to build solid skills is essential for the successful progression to higher-level subjects. As educators, we need to instill this way of thinking in teaching and learning to help cultivate and sustain a pipeline of future STEM innovators that will drastically improve our nation’s effort to stay competitive in the global economy and remain a world leader in science and technology.
Early Childhood Education and STEM Education Have Commonalities
Key commonalities play an integral part in understanding and justifying why early STEM experiences are crucial in students’ education. STEM education curriculum, assessment, and instruction aligns with state standards, integrates disciplines, includes authentic (real-world) experiences, and incorporates world-class skills. Much like STEM education, Early Childhood education shares similar criteria and also includes overlapping learning progression indicators in six domains of developments (cognitive, language & communication, health & physical, mathematical thinking & expression, social & emotional, and approaches to play & learning) that are developmentally appropriate when planning and facilitating lessons and activities.
Putting it into Practice
Here are a few ideas and examples of classroom or online teaching and learning for early childhood STEM using the 5Es instructional model centered around an authentic (real-world) project (A Flooded Walkway). This lesson can be accomplished within two weeks. See specific time allocations for each section of the lesson.
Engage (45 minutes): Pose a (real-world) problem: There is a ditch near the school’s front entrance. A paved walkway runs from the parking lot to the front entrance of the school. When it rains, the ditch and most of the walkway floods leaving little or no room to walk from the parking lot to the school’s front entrance without getting our shoes wet and muddy.
Ask leading questions: How can we solve the problem of NOT having wet and muddy shoes when it rains when walking to the school’s front entrance? What are some ideas you must have to solve this problem? What do you want/need to know to help you think of ideas so we do not get wet and muddy shoes when walking to the school’s front entrance on rainy days?
Students discuss their ideas, use either chart paper, smartboard document, or writing journals for in-class responses. Tools such as Padlet, Google Classroom Question, or Mentimeter can be used for online responses.
Explore (60 minutes each day in learning centers for one school week): Give students time to discover ways to solve the problem by exploring ideas of stepping-stones, mats, bridges, bricks, planks, and other tools/materials. Provide various activities to discuss the problem, compare ideas with others, test predictions, plan and conduct investigations, and learn through free or teacher-guided play during learning centers time for in-class exploration. For online exploration use created and shared choice boards.
Blocks Center – Design and build various structures or other generated student ideas with wooden blocks during in-class exploration; or use materials such as cups, sticks, books, and rope that support people walking on top of the muddy water.
Sand and Water (and Science) Centers – Explore the properties of sand and water with materials such as small blocks, cups, hand shovels, measuring cups, sponges, and tubing or explore with materials at home in your backyard or bathtub.
Art – Search for pictures in magazines or Google Search for ideas and create wooden or waterproof signs for the structure (walk-way, bridge, stone pathway) with markers and paint, or use Adobe Spark or Canva to create signs.
Math Center – Provide tape measures, meter tapes, scales, rulers, measuring cups and spoons to measure materials used in building their structure in both in-class and home exploration.
Dramatic Play – Provide dress-up clothes or costumes, materials, and YouTube videos to depict various STEM workers such as architects, engineers, mason/construction workers, or bricklayers for both in-class and home exploration.
Explain (45 minutes): Have children share the ideas by showing the models of their ideas or solutions from their journal entries and/or photos taken by a camera on their digital device or use video creation apps such as Flipgrid or Screencastify. Encourage students to explain their ideas on solutions in their own words.
Elaborate (45 minutes): Have children apply new learning to their improved ideas by presenting to other students or “real” engineers or architects in their community. Include student-created videos of their new learning on the school’s website for parents to view and comment.
Evaluate (45 minutes): Have children provide feedback on ideas presented from other students. Use Google Jamboard or Flipgrid for collective class feedback. Use apps such as Kahoot and/or Socrative to quiz learning and/or vote for their three best class project solutions.
Having a foundation and supportive experiences for STEM skills early in life will enhance later life experiences, thus reflecting the “Cradle to Career” pathway.
For more information on lessons, activities, and resources on Early Childhood STEM, go to STEMLinx.org and click on the Early Childhood STEM collection. For more support with Early Childhood and STEM, contact us.
Livingston, Carmelina. “Building A Foundation For Successful STEM Education At The Elementary Level.” Best Practices in STEM Education: Innovative Approaches from Einstein Fellow Alumni, 2nd ed., Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers, 2018, pp. 23–43.