July 17, 2018

STEM Instruction in Early Childhood Education

This article was written by MAE member and educator Roshunda Harris-Allen.

Many early childhood educators lack the knowledge required to understand each of the components related to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in their classrooms. Because of this deficit, inexperienced early childhood educators are responsible for providing academic instruction in classrooms that serve children ages zero to eight. This results in a high percentage of students who are not prepared to enter high school or college and compete in a global, STEM-rich economy. According to a 2017 report from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), 66 percent of fourth graders were not proficient in science, and 60 percent were not proficient in math. The U.S. Department of Education (2018) reported that only 16 percent of American high school seniors were proficient in higher-level math. All students should be equipped with the necessary STEM skills to think deeply and critically. To enhance these skills, participation in STEM activities in the classroom should start prior to a child’s entering grade school.

Early childhood educators, instructing students ages zero to eight, should incorporate/increase STEM teaching through content-rich language activities in a socially competent environment to improve school readiness, college readiness, and career readiness. Research shows that early exposure to STEM can have a positive impact across the entire spectrum of learning. For example, early math knowledge predicts later math success and literacy/reading development and achievement. Children are naturally curious and can generate their own questions about the world in which they live. From birth to third grade, young children are constantly observing, investigating, and discovering how things taste, feel, look, sound, and smell within their environments. These are the traits we expect from our best high school and college graduates, yet many children lose the sense to discover STEM as they grow older. As educators, we must help to build a strong foundation for our young children by:

1. Increasing STEM language and content within the preparation programs for pre-service early childhood educators;
2. Integrating more enhanced STEM lessons in a literacy-rich and socially competent early childhood environment; and
3. Providing additional training in STEM content to educational professional development personnel.

Schools and early childhood programs often lack the knowledge, resources, and capacity to focus on early STEM learning in developmentally appropriate ways. It is critical that we engage our youngest learners and give them the opportunities they deserve to develop their STEM skills at a young age. This will prepare them to compete in a global economy by focusing on specific issues related to the influence of content/literacy-rich STEM instruction. Educators need to provide pedagogical experience daily in their classrooms to increase scores in all academic subjects. In a socially competent environment, young children should be allowed to manipulate various activities in whole group, small group, and independently. Daily, weekly, and/or monthly, children should be introduced to vocabulary words directly related to key STEM concepts. This will allow young children the opportunity to cultivate a love for STEM at an early age.

School readiness, a multi-dimensional concept, provides important advantages for children below and above age three. Teaching STEM through social, emotional, and literacy-rich content is a key component for preparing young children for school and life success. By focusing on the significance of the first few years of life, young children will receive immediate STEM experiences.

To accommodate this young population, highly-educated and trained professionals are greatly needed. Decades of research shows that high-quality early learning and educational programs have significant academic and lifelong benefits, ranging from a lower percentage of grade retention and exceptional education placements to greater success in kindergarten and high school completion rates (NGA Center for Best Practices, 2012).

RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Increase STEM language and content within the preparation programs for pre-service early childhood educators.
If early childhood educators did not enjoy STEM experiences and investigations as young children, it is unlikely that they will encourage STEM activities in their classrooms today. In order to break this cycle, early childhood teacher preparation programs need to incorporate positive learning experiences for their students (Counsell and Peat, 2017). Pre-service, early childhood education teacher preparation programs should also provide literacy-rich STEM content and methodologies that are aligned with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). For children, ages zero to eight, to have access to high-quality STEM experiences in school, their teachers must be equipped with both content and pedagogy to guide students in high-quality STEM experiences (Early Childhood STEM Working Group, 2017).

2. Integrate more enhanced STEM lessons in a literacy-rich and socially competent early childhood environment.
STEM education is incorporated in some early childhood classrooms, but can be emphasized more intentionally in all early learning environments. Teachers should be trained to prioritize STEM and be strongly encouraged to intertwine STEM seamlessly into their existing curricula (McClure, Guernsey, Clements, and others, 2017). Early childhood educators should be trained on how to integrate more enhanced STEM lessons in a literacy-rich and socially-competent environment. Training should be ongoing, and instruction should include developmentally appropriate STEM content. Also, early childhood educators should be allowed the opportunity to obtain a post-baccalaureate certificate in science, technology, engineering, and math. This will help early childhood educators understand the foundation and importance of STEM being introduced to children at a young age. Programs should focus on quality early learning environments, developmentally appropriate practice, and learning what the outcomes are for students who have a quality early childhood, literacy-rich STEM education.

3. Provide additional training in STEM content to educational professional development personnel.
Professional development personnel also lack some of the necessary skills/knowledge needed to successfully provide resources to fulfill their duties. Those persons providing professional development for early childhood educators in STEM should have, as a minimum, a Masters Degree in Child Development, Childcare and Family Education, Elementary Education, or a related field. Educators should also have three to five years of experience related directly to early childhood education and STEM. This will help to enhance their knowledge in early childhood education, socially competent and literacy-rich learning environments, and developmentally appropriate practice. This will also allow professional development personnel to gain a better understanding of current STEM issues early childhood educators face in their classrooms daily.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH

There should be a continuous effort for improving early childhood education. I recommend early childhood educators and stakeholders examine how introducing STEM at an early age can increase standardized test scores on tests such as the Gateway Exams in Grade School, American College Test (ACT), Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), Graduate Record Exam (GRE), PRAXIS Core, and others. Research should include NAEYC’s statement on developmentally appropriate practice, the U.S. Department of Education statement on quality, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explanation of a high-quality early childhood learning environments. Research should also focus on the necessary characteristics of a high-quality learning environment, consider what makes an early childhood educator effective, and what characters are needed for a technical assistant, professional development personnel, and evaluators who provide experiences for early childhood education staff and pre-service teachers in STEM fields. Furthermore, research should also emphasize what accommodations are needed for classrooms in low poverty areas.

REFERENCES

ACT. (2017). STEM education in the U.S.: Where we are and what we need to do. Retrieved
May 2018.
https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/STEM/2017/STEM-Education-in-the-US-2017.pdf

Buchter, J., Kucskay, M., Oh-Young, C., Weglarz-Ward, J., and Gelfer, J. (2017). Supporting
STEM in early childhood education. University of Las Vegas, Nevada: digitalschalorship.unlv.edu. Retrieved May 2018. https://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1001&context=co_educ_policy

Counsel, S. and Peat, F. (2017). Increasing STEM outcomes through quality collaborations: It
takes a village to prepare high-quality educators. (4th issue). Retrieved May 2018.

Increasing STEM Outcomes Through Quality Collaborations

Doran, L (2017). STEM education starts in early childhood, researchers say. Inside Sources. Retrieved May 2018. http://www.insidesources.com/stem-education-early-childhood/

Early Childhood STEM Working Group. (2017). Providing high quality STEM experiences for
all young learners. Chicago, IL: Erickson Institute. Retrieved May 2018.