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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Early Childhood Education in the United States and the Case for STEM

Nearly 4 million children enter kindergarten each year in the United States. Unfortunately, research shows that without access to high-quality early education, too many children enter kindergarten a year or more behind their classmates in academic and social-emotional skills (US Dept. of Education, 2015).

As illustrated by the Massachusetts-based organizations Strategies for Children and Early Education for All, early childhood development is connected to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning. Neuroscience research shows that critical aspects of brain architecture are shaped by experiences in the first few years of life. It is important to take advantage of these early stages to help develop children’s learning capacities (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007).

The brain is particularly receptive to learning math and logic between the ages of 1 and 4 (National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies,1998). Specifically, foundations for number sense, scientific inquiry, problem solving, and critical thinking—which are fundamental for learning STEM concepts—are shaped during preschool years. Children begin to develop some sense about numbers long before they begin to count. They can tell their age, how many cookies they have on their plate, the number of their siblings, and basic geometric shapes such as circle and square (Clements & Sarama, 2000). Inquiry and exploration are foundations for math and science and are also the foundations of early learning (Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences, 2003).

The positive effects of quality STEM education stretch far beyond the scope of STEM subjects. A study published by the American Psychological Association in 2007 found that mathematics achievement in early childhood was as good, and in some cases, a better predictor of later success in literacy than early literacy.

The critical need for high-quality early childhood educational programming that introduces children to age-appropriate math and science concepts is clear. Early STEM learning builds young children's understanding of the surrounding world. Experts assert that, “young children are natural-born scientists and engineers” (Chesloff, 2013) and these innate abilities should be continuously cultivated to prepare children for future success.

SAE and ASSET: Powerful Partners in Teacher Training

In 1986, SAE International created the SAE Foundation to encourage and increase student achievement and participation in STEM and to help build the STEM-savvy workforce that we need. Over the last 31 years, the SAE Foundation has partnered with corporations to engage STEM industry professionals in the classroom to help deliver SAE’s hands-on, highly effective programs.

SAE's A World In Motion (AWIM) provides classroom-based programming that trains teachers to deliver STEM content and teaches students to think critically and solve real-world problems through the Engineering Design Experience. The program reached more than 112,000 students in 2016. The world-renowned Collegiate Design Series reaches 8,000 university students each year. Students go beyond textbook learning to build real vehicles including Formula One racecars and super mileage vehicles and participate in competitions around the world.

SAE’s STEM programs have reached more than 5 million students worldwide and have engaged more than 30,000 STEM industry professionals as classroom volunteers. Recognizing the importance of reaching students as early as possible, SAE has developed the research-based AWIM Preschool program, which will make SAE the only U.S.-based organization to offer a continuum of preschool to college STEM programming.

ASSET STEM Education is a national education improvement nonprofit that provides educators, schools and educational organizations (serving pre-K through career) with:

  • proven professional development
  • evidence-based, hands-on learning materials (leasing program)
  • customized consulting services

Together, SAE and ASSET create a powerful partnership with the ability to create systemic change in early childhood education.

AWIM Preschool Program to Train Pittsburgh-area Teachers in STEM

SAE will pilot AWIM Preschool and evaluate the effect of teacher training on teachers’ confidence level in delivering STEM content. Partnering with ASSET, SAE will train 15 Pittsburgh-area preschool teachers in a method of intentional teaching that takes advantage of children’s natural interest in play and motivation to make sense of the world around them combined with adult mediation designed to support learning.

Young children experience science by building “an understanding of basic concepts and how they connect and apply to the world in which they live.” (Worth, 2010) Play is the “primary means by which children explore the world, investigate its properties, and build an understanding about how the world works.” (Hoisington, 2008) As children play, educators can use their own knowledge of the content and how children make meaning during play to help guide children’s inquiry. AWIM Preschool allows educators to take advantage of children’s natural scientific curiosity and develop it through play combined with engaging instruction.

The program consists of individual curriculum guides and a set of themed books to accompany each AWIM Preschool unit. Each of the units include a learning cycle, which is a model of instruction based on scientific inquiry that encourages students to develop their own understanding of a concept through exploration and directly ties to how children learn. All units include a developmentally appropriate story book that reinforces children’s explorations. Home connection activities are designed to engage families and extend the classroom learning. A one-day professional development course engages participants in one unit as a learner with the facilitators modelling effective inquiry-based teaching strategies and uncovering STEM content.

Before ASSET delivers the professional development, SAE provides educators with a comprehensive teacher’s guide that offers them in-depth knowledge of the science and engineering concepts and practices for each unit. This helps teachers to feel more comfortable in an inquiry-based environment where they may face questions about scientific content with which they were originally unfamiliar.

The curriculum outlines strategies for teaching, preparing the environment, modeling scientific inquiry and attitudes, observing and recording student learning and effectively facilitating scientific inquiry and science talks.

Following the recommendations of the National Science Teachers Association for early childhood education, AWIM Preschool: 

  • nurtures young children’s curiosity and provide experiences that focus on the content and practices of science;
  • provides a learning environment that encourages children to ask questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings;
  • provides training for educators that allow them to tap into, guide, and focus children’s natural interests and abilities through carefully planned open-ended, inquiry-based explorations;
  • creates numerous opportunities every day for young children to engage in science inquiry and learning by intentionally designing a rich, positive, and safe environment for exploration and discovery;
  • emphasizes learning of science and engineering practices, including asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations and designing solutions; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NRC 2012, NGSS Lead States 2013); and
  • provides a purposeful context for developing mathematics and literacy skills and concepts, including speaking, listening, vocabulary development, and many others.

During this pilot program, SAE will provide guidance for educators in facilitating children’s inquiry-based science explorations by increasing content, pedagogical and curricular knowledge and explore how this can be facilitated in an early learning environment.

Interested in Participating in AWIM Preschool?

We are currently seeking participants for the We Can Build curriculum, which introduces children to key concepts in physical science and engineering by investigating building structures. The accompanying book is Bats at Home, a story of a family that builds a house for bats. To learn more about this program and about how you can work with SAE and ASSET to create systemic change in early childhood education, please contact:

Dianne Hanrahan, ASSET STEM Education
412-481-7320
dhanrahan@assetinc.org