Nurturing STEM Skills in Young Learners, PreK–3
Young children are avid STEM investigators, eager to explore and invent. Spend five minutes with a 3- to 8-year-old and you will field an astounding array of questions, as their own natural curiosity leads them towards STEM inquiry. “How can we all get a fair share of these cookies?” “How can I make my block skyscraper real tall—but not fall over?” “How can that log float on top of the lake? Isn’t it heavy?” Young children are also the earliest adopters of technology, grabbing for cameras, smart phones, and other tools as soon as they are able.
Supporting and guiding this natural desire to explore STEM ideas and phenomena can have lasting benefits. As noted in the National Research Council’s A Framework for K–12 Science Education Practices, “… before they even enter school, children have developed their own ideas about the physical, biological, and social worlds and how they work. By listening to and taking these ideas seriously, educators can build on what children already know and can do.”1 Yet current data on school readiness and early mathematics and science achievement—data on the “T and E” of early STEM learning is not available—indicate that we are not giving young children the support they need to be “STEM Smart.”
Current data on school readiness and early math and science achievement indicate we are not giving young children the support they need to be “STEM Smart”.
Striking Statistics: Early Education under the Scope
- Leading economists concur that high-quality early education makes dollars and sense2; an analysis of the economic impact of the Perry Preschool program showed a 7% to 10% per year return on investment based on increased school and career achievement.3
- Researchers have found that effective early mathematics education can enhance later learning and narrow achievement gaps.4,5,6,7,8
- Approximately 40% of U.S. children are not ready for kindergarten,9 and too many children reach Grade 4 lacking key science and math skills and knowledge.10
- Only 34% of Grade 4 students achieved a score of “At or Above Proficient” on the science portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).11
- Only 40% of Grade 4 students achieved a score of “At or Above Proficient” on the mathematics portion of the NAEP.12
A wide array of factors, some related to the complex PreK–3 learning landscape, diminishes the powerful, positive effect that early STEM learning can have. PreK education has been referred to as a “crazy quilt”—composed of child care centers, Head Start, school PreK programs, family child care—funded through a plethora of sources, with different standards, of inconsistent quality, and with scant focus on fostering early STEM learning. At the early elementary level, schools also vary widely in their resources, quality, effectiveness, and time spent on instruction in the disciplines related to STEM education—particularly science, technology, and engineering.
Challenges in three critical areas of the early learning landscape may bar the way to the successful STEM learning of children ages 3 to 8:
- Curriculum and Instruction
- Educator Development
It’s key to focus on these challenges across the PreK–3 span of the learning continuum. At ages 5 to 8, children can have more in common developmentally with younger peers than with students in Grade 4.13 PreK–3 educators will need to join forces to tackle these challenges, ease transitions between grades, and ensure positive STEM learning outcomes.
Curriculum and Instruction
The “most effective” way to foster young children’s STEM learning is a hot topic of debate that has entangled the field in a false dichotomy: play “vs.” learning. As long as the focus remains on the needs and developmental stage of each child, nurturing early STEM learning need not be an “either/or” proposition. As researcher Kyle Snow suggests, there should be “a place for both direct instruction and play.”14 Increasingly, a synthesis of instructional approaches is being viewed as key to successful early STEM learning.
Play-based curriculum is widely acknowledged to be a key dimension of effective early learning.15,16,17 Play segues smoothly into learning when teachers intentionally plan STEM experiences—focused on key concepts and skills—let children take the lead in exploring, and ask open-ended questions that cause children to reflect, form theories, ask questions, and explore more. Although experts view this type of learning as crucial for PreK children, K–3 children also benefit from this approach. Karen Worth, Chair of the Elementary Education Department at Wheelock College and science advisor for Peep and the Big Wide World observes, “For young children, science is about active, focused exploration of objects, materials, and events around them.”
Curricula that features direct instruction is also key to building PreK–3 children’s STEM skills and knowledge.18,19 Douglas Clements, Executive Director of the Marsico Institute of Early Learning and Literacy at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education notes that research-based learning trajectories20 embedded in curricula are a particularly important facet of effective early STEM education. Clements notes, “STEM learning trajectories start with a goal and involve a developmental progression—students’ successive levels of thinking related to the goal. Based on their understanding of students’ thinking, teachers fine-tune activities to help students move along the developmental progression to achieve the goal.”
All approaches to nurturing PreK–3 children’s STEM skills and knowledge should reflect the following eight indicators of effective PreK–3 curriculum, as identified by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE):21
- Children are active and engaged
- Goals are clear and shared by all
- Curriculum is evidence-based
- Valued content is learned through investigation, play, and focused, intentional teaching
- Curriculum builds on prior learning and experiences
- Curriculum is comprehensive
- Professional standards validate the curriculum’s subject-matter content
- Research and other evidence indicates that the curriculum, if implemented as intended, will likely have beneficial effects
All approaches to nurturing PreK–3 children’s STEM skills and knowledge can also give teachers opportunities to build, and help children apply, executive function skills.22 These skills include organizing information, staying focused, strategizing, planning, and exercising self-control.23 Although experts view executive function skills as key to school readiness and success,24 a high percentage of PreK–3 teachers do not know or understand their role in early learning and need tools and training to help them foster children’s skills.25
Susan Carey, Henry A. Morss Jr. and Elizabeth W. Morss Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, says that executive function (EF) skills play a pivotal role in children’s early and later STEM learning. “In math and science class, children learn theories and have to be able to make sense of abstract representations,” she notes. “They have to connect how they understand things now to the new theory they learn—requiring them to make conceptual changes. Children who score higher on EF tasks make those conceptual changes faster.” Although children can strengthen EF skills throughout their lives, the early years present an especially important time to acquire these skills. “EFs are part of the specialization of the pre-frontal cortex,” Carey says, “This part of the brain is massively developing between infancy and ages 6 to 7.”
Regardless of the combination of effective approaches used, it is essential to devote adequate time to nurturing PreK–3 children’s early STEM learning. Currently, that is not happening. At the PreK level, the emphasis has traditionally been on cultivating young children’s language and literacy development, with a bit of math. “Comprehensive” PreK curricula said to cover math may not necessarily do so; one study of such a curriculum found that just 58 seconds of a 360-minute day were spent on math.26 PreK teachers seldom teach science, and exploring engineering ideas is rarely part of PreK learning. In fact, the Committee on K–12 Engineering Education identified the NSF-funded PreK–1 Young Scientist Series as the only preschool curriculum of relevance in its report on the state of U.S. engineering education.27
K–3 teachers spend more time on mathematics instruction. Yet science, technology, and engineering continue to receive short shrift. In part, this might stem from the current testing environment and a strong focus on testing mathematics knowledge and skills. A Horizon Research study found that “...in Grades K–3, reading/language arts and math combined for a total of 143 minutes of the school day on average, while science accounted for 19 minutes of that same day.”28 According to the Committee on K–12 Engineering Education, elementary and secondary school engineering education is “still very much a work in progress.”29
At both the PreK and K–3 level, early technology learning remains a murky area. Concerns linger about how to effectively draw upon technology to enhance learning—best types of technology tools, how much time children should spend exploring technology, uneven access to technology—as well as teachers’ “digital literacy.”30 However, 2013 findings from the Ready to Learn PreKindergarten Transmedia Mathematics Study highlight the positive role that judicious use of technology can play in early math learning and teaching and offer useful implications for the effective integration of technology into early STEM instruction.31
Teachers are the key ingredient in effective PreK–3 STEM learning. They must be prepared to adeptly draw upon strategies to promote children’s learning and tailor curriculum to meet the needs of each child.32, 33,34 Yet recent reports indicate that current systems of PreK–3 teacher preparation, licensure, and hiring are often inadequate, and that young children’s educators do not have the training they need to support children’s learning.35,36 Focusing on STEM, there are strong indications that, across the PreK–3 continuum, teachers need more support to successfully nurture children’s STEM learning.37
There is evidence that many PreK teachers do not—and do not know how to—effectively promote young children’s early math and science learning.38,39 For decades, the PreK workforce has grappled with complex challenges—insufficient pre-service preparation, different licensing criteria, extremely low pay for long hours, high turnover—that undermine its ability to fully support children’s learning. Kimberlee Kiehl, Executive Director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, reflects: “When you talk about the PreK world, teachers often come into the job having had no coursework in STEM at all. They're not prepared for it, and there’s very little professional development out there for them.” One survey of hundreds of PreK educators found that 94% were interested in participating in professional development in mathematics.40
At the early elementary school level, recent reports highlight the need to improve the preparation and professional development of mathematics and science teachers.41,42 A Horizon Research study found that only 39% of elementary school science teachers “feel very well prepared to teach science.”43 Slowly, some states are making progress in strengthening their systems of PreK–3 teacher preparation. For example, Georgia requires PreK–3 teachers to complete several courses that deepen their understanding of mathematics and how to support children’s early math learning; prospective PreK–3 teachers attending the University of Central Florida must complete a course, “Teaching Science and Technology to Young Children,” that prepares them to promote children’s STEM learning.44
Innovative professional development work is also underway. In Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, PreK teachers have completed Foundations of Science Literacy, a 6-month, credit-bearing, college-level course that combines face-to-face instruction with mentoring and performance-based assignments.45 The course draws upon The Young Scientist Series PreK–1 curriculum and has been found to improve teachers’ inquiry-based science instruction, lead to gains in teachers’ science content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, and increase children’s ability to solve scientific challenges.
Standards-based reform has brought challenges and opportunities to PreK–3 STEM education. These standards and guidelines spotlight what young children need to know and be able to do at different ages—and have the potential to help PreK–3 teachers enhance STEM education. Yet concerns and caveats accompany the standards.
At the PreK level, there are concerns that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) might create pressure for children to tackle Kindergarten-level STEM content and skills before they are ready to do so, in ways they do not learn best, and to the diminishment of other kinds of support (e.g., social-emotional). Concerns have also arisen regarding how states are implementing and assessing early learning standards—and how well state early learning standards align with the CCSS and NGSS.
At the K–3 level, there are concerns that a narrow focus on the CCSS and NGSS, high stakes testing, and ensuring that children “test well” might take center stage—at the expense of fostering students’ deep STEM investigations and understanding.
NAEYC’s and NAECS/SDE’s elements of effective early learning standards46 might be useful for the field to consider as it moves forward to implement new K–3 STEM-related standards, as well as to continue to implement PreK early learning standards:
- Emphasize significant, developmentally appropriate content and outcomes—by NAEYC’s definition, this entails knowing what is typical at each stage of early development based on research; understanding and addressing each child’s interests, abilities, and progress; and ensuring that standards are implemented in ways that are meaningful, relevant, and respectful for each child and family
- Implement and assess standards in ways that support all young children’s development—this includes maintaining methods of instruction that include a range of approaches, including the use of play and both small- and large-group instruction
- Provide support to early childhood programs and professionals—including tools and professional development—and to families in understanding the standards and how they can support their children’s learning
The National Science Foundation supports a wide range of STEM programs—both promising and proven to have positive outcomes—for early learners. Here are four examples.
Ensuring every child has a high-quality early STEM education is one of the best investments our country can make. Tomorrow’s engineers are building bridges in the block corner today. Tomorrow’s scientists are doing “field work” at recess, inspecting the structure of a fallen leaf.
To keep them exploring and ensure their positive outcomes, the full array of early childhood stakeholders must come together to create a strong, smooth continuum of PreK–3 STEM learning that features:
- Teachers who have received high-quality pre-service and in-service training focused on STEM disciplines, effective instruction and curriculum, and how to draw upon standards and assessment to enhance each child’s STEM learning
- Teachers who have received high-quality pre-service and in-service training focused on the executive function, self-control, and social skills necessary for successful learning in any subject, including STEM subjects
- Sufficient time spent on STEM learning, every step of the way from PreK–3 and beyond
- Research-based STEM curricula that makes use of learning trajectories to progressively build children’s skills and knowledge
- STEM-focused play and hands-on learning in formal and informal settings that gives children free rein to explore STEM, guided by knowledgeable educators
- Collaboration among PreK programs, schools, informal learning environments, and families focused on enhancing children’s STEM learning
Creating such a continuum will require significant commitment and coordination, yet will yield astronomical pay-offs—a STEM-capable workforce and citizenry—in the future.
3Heckman, J. J. (2011, Spring). The economics of inequality: The value of early childhood education. American Educator, 35(1), 31–35. http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2011/Heckman.pdf
4Duncan, G.J., Dowsett, C.J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A.C., Klebanov, P., Pagani, L.S., Feinstein, L., Engel, M., Brooks-Gunn, J., Sexton, H., Duckworth, K., Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43,1428–1446.
5Geary, D. C. (2013). Early foundations in mathematics learning and their relations to learning disabilities. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 22(1). 23-27.
6Geary, D. C, Hoard, M. K., Nugent, L., Bailey, D. H. (2013, January).Adolescents’ functional numeracy is predicted by their school entry number system knowledge. PLoS ONE, 8(1).
7Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Spitler, M. E., Lange, A. A., & Wolfe, C. B. (2011). Mathematics learned by young children in an intervention based on learning trajectories: A large-scale cluster randomized trial. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 42(2), 127–166.
8Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Wolfe, C. B., & Spitler, M. E. (2013). Longitudinal evaluation of a scale-up model for teaching mathematics with trajectories and technologies: Persistence of effects in the third year. American Educational Research Journal, 50(4), 812 - 850. doi: 10.3102/0002831212469270
9Hair, E., Halle, T., Terry-Humen, E., Lavelle, B., & Calkins, J. (2006). Children’s school readiness in the ECLS-K: Predictions to academic, health, and social outcomes in first grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21, 431–454.
10Council of Chief State School Officers. (2009). A quiet crisis: The urgent need to build early childhood systems and quality programs for children birth to age five. Washington, DC: Author.
11U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). Science 2009: National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4, 8, and 12. Washington, DC: Author.
12National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The nation’s report card—Mathematics 2011: National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 4 and 8. Washington, DC: Author.
13Bornfreund, L. A. (2011, March). Getting in sync: Revamping licensing and preparation for teachers in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades. Washington, DC: The New America Foundation.
14Snow, K. (n.d.). Research news that you can use: Debunking the play vs. learning dichotomy. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/content/research-news-you-can-use-play-vs-learning
15Bowman, B. T. (1999). A context for learning: Policy implications for math, science, and technology in early childhood education. In American Association for the Advancement of Science (Ed.), Dialogue on Early Childhood Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education. Washington, DC: AAAS.
16Katz, L. G. (2010, May). STEM in the early years. Paper presented at the STEM in Early Education and Development Conference, Cedar Falls, IA. Retrieved from http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/beyond/seed/ katz.html
17Ginsburg, H. P. (2006). Mathematical play and playful mathematics: A guide for early education. In D. G. Singer, R. M. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsch-Pasek, Play=learning. How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Retrieved from http://udel.edu/~roberta/play/ Ginsburg.pdf
18Clements, D. (2013, September). Math in the early years. ECS Research Brief: The Progress of Educational Reform, 14(5). Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/4787293/ Math_in_the_Early_Years_ECS_Research Brief_The_progress_of_educational_reform_
19Diamond, K.E., Justice, L.M., Siegler, R.S., & Snyder, P.A. (2013). Synthesis of IES research on early intervention and early childhood education. (NCSER 2013-3001). Washington, DC: National Center for Special Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
20Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2009). Early childhood mathematics education research: Learning trajectories for young children. New York, NY: Routledge.
21National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. (2009). Where we stand on curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/pscape.pdf
22Gropen, J., Clark-Chiarelli, N., Hoisington, C., & Ehrllich, S. (2011). The importance of executive function in early science education. Child Development Perspectives, 5(4), 298–304.
23National Center on Learning Disabilities, What Is Executive Function? Retrieved from www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/executive-function-disorders/wh...
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25Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the brain’s “air traffic control” system: How early experiences shape the development of Executive Function: Working Paper No.11.
26Farran, D. C., Lipsey, M., Watson, B., & Hurley, S. (2007, April). Balance of content emphasis and child content engagement in an Early Reading First program. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago IL.
27Committee on K–12 Engineering Education; Katehi, L., Pearson, G., & Feder, M. (Eds.). (2009). Engineering in K–12 education: Understanding the status and improving the prospects. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
28Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Weiss, I. R., Malzahn, K. A., Campbell, K. M., & Weis, A. M. (2013). Report of the 2012 national survey of science and mathematics education (p. 53). Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research.
29Committee on K–12 Engineering Education; Katehi, L., Pearson, G., & Feder, M. (Eds.). (2009). Engineering in K–12 education: Understanding the status and improving the prospects (p. 2). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
30National Association for the Education of Young Children and Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent’s College. (2012). Technology and interactive media as tools in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age eight. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/files/ naeyc/PS_technology_WEB.pdf
31Pasnik, S., & Llorente, C. (2013). Preschool teachers can use a PBS kids transmedia curriculum supplement to support young children’s mathematics learning: Results of a randomized controlled trial. A report to the CPB-PBS Ready to Learn initiative. Waltham, MA, and Menlo Park, CA: Education Development Center and SRI International.
32Clements, D., Agodini, R., & Harris, B. (2013, September). Instructional practices and student math achievement: Correlations from a study of math curricula. NCEE Evaluation Brief. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20134020/pdf/20134020.pdf
33Worth, K. (2010, May). Science in early childhood classrooms: Content and process. Paper presented at the STEM in Early Education and Development Conference, Cedar Falls, IA. http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/beyond/seed/ worth.html
34Clements, D. (2013, September). Math in the early years. ECS Research Brief: The Progress of Educational Reform, 14(5). Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/4787293/ Math_in_the_Early_Years_ECS_Research Brief_The_progress_of_educational_reform_
35Bornfreund, L. A. (2011, March). Getting in sync: Revamping licensing and preparation for teachers in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades. Washington, DC: The New America Foundation.
36Whitebook, M., & Ryan, S. (2011). Degrees in context: Asking the right questions about preparing skilled and effective teachers of young children. Retrieved from http://www.nieer.org/ resources/policybriefs/23.pdf
37Brenneman, K., Stevenson-Boyd, J., & Frede, E. (2009, March). Math and science in preschool: Policies and practice. National Institute for Early Education Research Preschool Policy Brief, Issue 19.
38Clements, D. (2013, September). Math in the early years. ECS Research Brief: The Progress of Educational Reform, 14(5). Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/4787293/ Math_in_the_Early_Years_ECS_Research Brief_The_progress_of_educational_reform_
39Copley, J., & Padron, Y. (1999). Preparing teachers of young learners: Professional development of early childhood teachers in mathematics and science. In American Association for the Advancement of Science (Ed.), Dialogue on Early Childhood Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from http://www.project2061.org/publications/ earlychild/online/fostering/copleyp.htm
40Sarama, J., & DiBiase, A.-M. (2004). The professional development challenge in preschool mathematics. In D. H. Clements, J. Sarama, and A.-M. DiBiase (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics: Standards for early childhood mathematics education (pp. 415–448). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
41Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Weiss, I. R., Malzahn, K. A., Campbell, K. M., & Weis, A. M. (2013). Report of the 2012 national survey of science and mathematics education. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.
42Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences. (2012). The mathematical education of teachers II. Providence RI and Washington DC: American Mathematical Society and Mathematical Association of America. http://cbmsweb.org/MET2/met2.pdf
43Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Weiss, I. R., Malzahn, K. A., Campbell, K. M., & Weis, A. M. (2013). Report of the 2012 national survey of science and mathematics education. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.
44Bornfreund, L. A. (2011, March). Getting in sync: Revamping licensing and preparation for teachers in pre-K, kindergarten, and the early grades. Washington, DC: The New America Foundation.
45Chalufour, I. (2010). Learning to teach science: Strategies that support teacher practice children’s ability to solve scientific challenges. Paper presented at the STEM in Early Education and Development Conference, Cedar Falls, IA. http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/beyond/seed/chalufour.html
46National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. (2009). Where we stand on early learning standards (p. 2). http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/earlyLearningStandards.pdf
47 Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2013). Building Blocks, Volumes 1 and 2. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Education.
48 Peep and the Big Wide World. See http://www.peepandthebigwideworld.com
49 ScratchJr. See http://ase.tufts.edu/DevTech/ScratchJr/ScratchJrHome.asp
50 Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007, November). Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science, 318, 1387–1388.