Engaging young children in STEM is critical for creating a lifelong love of learning and for developing critical thinking skills which will serve them well across all academic disciplines and prepare them for the 21st Century workforce.  The recently released report, STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and New America is a summary of current research and makes critical recommendations for both STEM communication to parents and future research in early childhood STEM.

The appropriate use of innovative education technologies will be an essential component to bringing STEM to children wherever they live as part of a well-balanced set of active learning experiences with educators and parents. These technology tools can potentially play a significant role in bridging STEM with literacy, the arts, and social-emotional learning.

Researchers should Partner with Teachers, DARPA

One recommendation from the STEM Starts Early report is, “Program designers should encourage studies that enable a two-way street between research and practice.” In addition to ensuring that program design includes both researchers and active educators, alternative models for conducting research and development activities need to be considered.

Federal and private programs typically employ two separate modes of research, “basic” and “applied” used in a highly-structured program format. But there is another model which is more likely to produce transformational innovation in technology development rapidly. As I’ve written in the past, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provides an excellent alternative model for conducting rapid-cycle research aimed at transformational innovation.

DARPA programs typically look ten to twenty years into the future to identify bold “grand challenges” or “moonshots” for technology development and develops three to four year programs to tackle them. Much of the basic research for these moonshots does not exist at the outset of a DARPA program.

The DARPA approach involves an iterative basic research process leading to an applied goal. This approach reduces the possibility of having disconnects between the basic research program and the future application. It also ensures that basic research is continually informing the design of the final product. The details of the ultimate goal remain flexible and will change continuously throughout development.

The other critical part of this process is that DARPA programs are interdisciplinary and recruit the best talent from across academia and industry, including talent from outside the area of interest. Instead of pushing funding to a single performer, DARPA programs implement a pull-strategy where they build teams from the best and most innovative people. This mix of perspectives and program flexibility foster successful innovations.

In this manner, DARPA has been responsible for the development of the internet, miniaturized GPS systems, speech recognition, and many other technologies that have transformed the military and civilian culture.

(Next page: What does the future look like for STEM education?)

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