Early Childhood Learning

Research: Let's Move STEM Learning Earlier

Research: Let's Move STEM Learning Earlier

The new report recommends engaging parents, so they feel more confident in introducing STEM learning to their children.

All children are born scientists. Just watch very young children plan and plant a community garden, discussing how much watering it needs, what roots are for and how a plant's growth shifts with the seasons. Yet the public perception appears to be that only some children have scientific inclinations, based in many cases on their family cultures.

According to a new research project, children who engage in scientific activities at an early age (between birth and age 8) develop positive attitudes toward science, build up their STEM "vocabularies" and do better at problem solving, meeting challenges and acquiring new skills.

"STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering and math education in early childhood," published by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America and supported by a National Science Foundation grant, has asserted that "the seeds of STEM must be planted early," right alongside the "seeds of literacy." Together, the report said, "these mutually enhancing, interwoven strands of learning will grow well informed, critical citizens prepared for a digital tomorrow."

Researchers interviewed "prominent" early STEM researchers, policy makers and teachers, conducted two focus groups with teachers, one with childcare and preschool educators and another with early elementary school teachers, and then invited early education experts from multiple organizations to contribute to early drafts of the report.

Among their findings:

  • Parents and teachers are enthusiastic about early STEM learning and act as "gatekeepers" to it, but they also don't always have the knowledge and support to do it well;
  • Teachers especially could use "more robust training and professional development" to engage young children in STEM learning;
  • STEM learning comes from multiple sources, including museums and libraries, and with technology, all of which act as STEM "charging stations" for children;
  • Better alignment is needed across grade levels, starting with preschool; and
  • People maintain misconceptions about STEM learning, which is holding back efforts to instill it into young children's activities.

To remedy the gaps, the report offers several recommendations:

  • Engage parents, so they feel more confident in introducing STEM learning to their children;
  • Support teachers by improving the training they receive to weave STEM into their classroom practices;
  • Ensure digital equity for families with young children and expand the "web" of sources of informal STEM learning to help families engage their children in STEM activities;
  • Put more resources at the state and national levels into early childhood education to support improvements;
  • Identify and fill gaps in STEM research regarding STEM in early childhood education; and
  • Do what it takes to remove "pre-existing cultural attitudes" and to build supportive "public will" about early STEM.

"Today's preschoolers are tomorrow's inventors and problem solvers," the researchers stated. "As the research here shows, advancing educational outcomes for young children more generally, and for the STEM disciplines specifically, will require urgent, well-coordinated, cross-sector work. Fortunately, fertile groundwork has already been laid. Important efforts are already underway to improve STEM learning in public schools up through 12th grade. Other efforts are underway to build a more coherent, high-quality, and sustainable system of early education from birth through age 8."

The full report and an executive summary are freely available on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.