Although STEM education is inarguably essential in today’s economy, it is not always seamlessly incorporated into early childhood education–and the barriers to inclusion are more pervasive than many educators might realize.
“Just as the industrial revolution made it necessary for all children to learn to read, the technology revolution has made it critical for all children to understand STEM,” according to the report.
After a 2013 STEM workshop targeted to early childhood educators, those who attended said they were excited by evidence-based STEM education practices and tools, but many also noted various barriers to implementation, including feeling limited by existing school structures and policies; the misapplication of new education standards; disconnects between preschool and elementary school practices; and an underprepared workforce.
The NSF-funded report, STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood, is the product of an effort by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America to respond to those educators’ concerns about STEM education and also to:
- Gain a better grasp of the challenges to and opportunities in STEM learning outlined in a review of early childhood education research, policy and practice
- Offer recommendations to stimulate research and policy agendas
- Encourage collaboration between pivotal sectors to implement and sustain needed changes
(Next page: The critical role families play in STEM education)
Along with teachers, families play a crucial role in forming young learners’ early STEM concepts.
“Across the research literature, family engagement in the math and literacy education of young children (3–8 years) has a consistently positive effect on children’s learning in those areas, and this relation is strongest when that engagement takes place outside of school,” the authors note in the report.
But because many parents have anxieties around teaching science- and math-related concepts to their children, or because they themselves may have missed such learning opportunities, they need support in their efforts to encourage their children.
The report outlines five key findings gleaned from the researchers’ examination of the STEM education landscape.
1. Both parents and teachers appear to be enthusiastic and capable of supporting early STEM learning; however, they require additional knowledge and support to do so effectively.
2. Teachers in early childhood environments need more robust training and professional development to effectively engage young children in developmentally appropriate STEM learning.
3. Parents and technology help connect school, home, and other learning environments like libraries and museums to support early STEM learning.
4. Research and public policies play a critical role in the presence and quality of STEM learning in young children’s lives, and both benefit from sustained dialogue with one another and with teachers in the classroom.
5. An empirically-tested, strategic communications effort is needed to convey an accurate understanding of developmental science to the public, leading to support for meaningful policy change around early STEM learning.
It becomes clear, the authors note, that STEM education at the preschool level must be prioritized. Creating opportunities to inject STEM learning opportunities in early childhood education can be accomplished with a combination of small and large actions.
The report’s recommendations include:
1. Engage parents: Support parent confidence and efficacy as their children’s first and most
important STEM guides.
2. Support teachers: Improve training and institutional support for teaching early STEM.
3. Connect learning: Support and expand the web of STEM learning “charging stations” available to children.
4. Transform early childhood education: Build a sustainable and aligned system of high quality early learning from birth through age 8.
5. Reprioritize research: Improve the way early STEM research is funded and conducted.
6. Across all these recommended actions, use insights from communications science to build public will for and understanding of early STEM learning.