REINFORCING STEM EDUCATION IN EARLY CHILDHOOD SETTING
Maria introduces a collection of various sizes and types of seashells at the nature center in a preschool classroom. She expects children to explore the similarities and differences between the seashells and also begin to measure them. During the activity, Maria notices that Naomi groups the large seashells together and moves the smaller seashells into a different pile. Building on Naomi’s interest in size comparison, Maria helps her use direct comparison to put six seashells in order based on their size. Later, Tony and Jackson visit the seashell collection. They are older than Naomi and have had more experience with measurement. For these boys, Maria prepares a set of mini sticks and suggests they use the mini sticks to measure the length of several seashells. She even gives them a recording sheet (prepared ahead of time) so that they can note down their results.
As a trained STEM educator, Maria is able to plan lessons with specific outcomes and children in mind. She understands the developmental pathway for measurement concepts and where individual children in her class are likely to fall in this scale. She reflects on how to implement the activity with various children as part of her planning.
What is STEM?
STEM is an integrated curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. STEM creates the four disciplines into a cohesive learning paradigm in which an individual asks questions, establishes relationships and communicates ideas. This knowledge allows teachers to plan a multilevel curriculum that meets the learning needs of a range of children. The aforementioned example illustrates how intentional teaching guides learning for a range of children.
Sally Moomaw, EdD (2013) suggests that the foundation of STEM curriculum should begin in a child’s early years. During the early years, children can develop a love for science and technology and a feeling of usefulness for their abilities, which can support their learning in the year ahead.
Early childhood educators are familiar with the concept of an integrated curriculum and are accustomed to planning integrated activities that relate to literacy, mathematics and science, as well as encouraging children’s natural curiosity and prompting them to ask genuine questions, which may expand their science learning and lead toward discovery.
This coordination of curricula is essential to young children’s learning and lies at the heart of STEM education.
Brain Building for STEM Education
The STEM learning environment should be intentionally designed to provide brainbuilding experiences for children. A wellplanned environment will provide children with a selection of learning experiences. When such an environment is combined with intentional, brain-building learning activities, children have the best of all worlds. The teacher’s role is to stay on the sidelines as co-learner to offer support when needed to help children develop new skills and facilitating interplay between children and their environment. They should never be the only source of input and exploration for children, but should be available to children when they need guidance and assistance with new ideas. Teachers must also master the skill of expanding STEM education into daily practice. The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, United Way of Massachusetts and Merrimack Valley are developing the brain-building campaign that is laying a firm foundation for STEM education:
Science is observing and experimenting, making predictions, sharing discoveries, asking questions and questioning how things work. The activities may include exploring water and sand, comparing and differentiating natural materials like rocks and soil, rolling balls across the room, and looking through a magnifying glass to count how many legs are on an insect.
Technology is using tools, being inventive, identifying problems and making things work. The activities include computers and tablets, and also identifying simple machines like gears, wheels and pulleys.
Engineering is solving problems using a variety of materials; designing and creating, and building things that work, which in an early childhood classroom happens in the block area. There, children plan and design structures every day with little teacher direction.
Mathematics is sequencing, patterning and exploring shapes, volume and size. The activities include sorting, counting, classifying, matching shapes and making patterns. Measuring is doable, especially with unit blocks where two of one size equal one of the next size up.
Nowadays, early childhood program attention is shifting to the importance of early learning in mathematics and science, after more than a decade of intense focus on literacy development. The learning in both of these disciplines that include the connections to technology and engineering is integrated into STEM education.
Teachers can accommodate curriculum goals and learning standards by focusing on the connections between mathematics and science while assisting children to comprehend the way mathematics and science are related to their daily life.