An often-cited statistic is that the human brain grows to 90% of its adult size by age 5. Early childhood is also critical for the healthy development of synapses — the neural bridges between brain cells that expand abilities such as communication, complex thought, innovation and movement.
The years from birth through primary school comprise a particularly rich time for encouraging the growth of curiosity and creativity necessary in later life for careers related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Fostering STEM learning at an early age helps children develop a can-do attitude toward careers in these fields.
However, learning needs to be developmentally appropriate. Furthermore, educators need guidance and support to create positive STEM education experiences for children.
Early STEM Learning Affects Career Choices
In a March 2018 report, the Institution of Engineers of Ireland noted that discovery and exploration are key tenets of early childhood education that “overlap” with “core engineering traits/behaviors.” Engineers Ireland (EI) suggests fostering “critical thinking and problem solving from a young age” in a primary curriculum. It has indicated that providing STEM curriculum from primary through secondary education may eventually help avoid downturns in the number of engineering apprentices. As of 2017, the number of trainees in Ireland remained about 38% lower than at the 2007 outset of the Great Recession, according to the report.
According to a report from King’s College London, “Most young people’s science aspirations and views of science are formed during the primary years and solidified by the age of 14.” It notes research supporting the efficacy of a “sustained, longer-term program” for building information about science careers into science curriculum.
In 2014 Scholastic article about the necessity of a maker space as a part of STEM education, journalist and educator Gary Stager asserted that science learning eventually will merge core ideas with hands-on practice of science and engineering. In short, students will be expected to demonstrate how these ideas work. This thinking at a higher level begins at preschool when children are encouraged to make their own creations while playing with building blocks, other materials and computers. If it continues throughout a student’s education, it likely will make the student more valuable to STEM employers.
Learning Must Be Developmentally Appropriate
The onset of schooling varies by country. For example, in Ireland, although state-funded primary schooling is available by age 4, it isn’t mandatory until a child is 6 years old. In the UK, public education includes part-time nursery school for all students beginning at age 3 and primary instruction begins at 5 years old. This is also a common pattern in the United States, where an increasing number of states are providing free preschool education. Whether you refer to early childhood learning as preschool, primary school or nursery school, successful STEM education considers the developmental needs of children at different ages. For greatest success at fitting into the teaching day and helping children make connections between different learning topics, STEM needs to be approached in a cross-curricular way and meld with activities such as art, play and music.
For example, according to cognitive psychologist Amy Shelton, who heads research at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, curriculum that includes block play helps young children gain “fundamental skills” necessary for building interest in STEM learning. Therefore, tinkering with construction toys helps build academic strength. A STEM lesson involving Magformers, which creates 3D brain-training magnetic construction toys, might involve children in the following activities:
• Having an open dialogue to discuss and draw their inventions.
• Counting different-looking toy pieces (i.e., one triangle, four squares, two pentagons, six colors).
• Testing the capabilities of objects they build.
What looks like play is actually intense learning.
Early childhood and primary-level educators are, of course, concerned that STEM instruction is developmentally appropriate. Writing for the non-partisan, nonprofit think tank New America in 2016, Lisa Guernsey cringes when recounting some of the misunderstandings concerning early STEM learning. Guernsey emphasizes that effective STEM learning allows for exploration. It doesn’t involve skill-and-drill activities such as reciting math facts or science vocabulary. Another misconception she often encounters is the view that STEM learning is specialized and takes time away from arithmetic, reading and writing.
Instead, at the early childhood/primary level, STEM should involve experiences such as:
• Observing and discussing the movement of insects.
• Considering math ideas like “more” and “less” while building with blocks.
• Working in teams to solve problems.
A large part of early inquiry concerns developing a go-along, get-along attitude. In March 2017, the BBC News highlighted the importance of relationship learning in an article about Northern Ireland primary students working in teams to build vehicles that “could travel on land, sea and air.”
For a group of students building a solar-powered vehicle, this experience included learning about circuits and switches. Other skills gained involved modifying original drawings to make an invention work, compromising on solutions and thinking about recycling.
Helping Facilitate Early STEM Education
Many teachers feel hesitant about helping young children explore scientific and mathematical ideas. PBS recently videotaped a University of Chicago pilot project aimed at helping early childhood educators become more comfortable facilitating STEM lessons, such as what objects float and why.
PBS noted that pressure is on preschool teachers to begin the STEM learning process because of poor assessment results in standardized science exams at the fourth-grade level. The short video points out that the featured university project focused on helping teachers learn how to facilitate the process of inquiry rather than teaching them the scientific principles behind the projects.
The goal is to help teachers feel more confident about getting students to make observations and discuss questions requiring something more than “yes” and “no” answers. Inquiry is a process that requires teachers to wait before sharing their own answers to student questions and to learn that it’s OK not to have all of the answers. What is important is to help students become critical thinkers. Supporting inquiry-based learning is one of the most effective strategies we can deploy today to promote STEM literacy, ultimately equipping children with the skills for success in tomorrow’s workforce.