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
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:
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
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:
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:
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.