Planting STEM Seeds of Interest

How young is too young to implement STEM education?

GUEST COLUMN | by Ricky Ye

credit-dfrobotAs advancements in how we approach STEM education and initiatives are on the rise around science, engineering, and mathematics, we’re seeing a greater impact on how we recognize children’s development and understanding of now-vital tech skills. Coding has become the new literacy, so it is essential to our children’s future that they learn to design and create digital technology via skills such as programming. There are many debates about what a child should and should not learn while they are growing up but coding and programming has become an essential one. But at what age should these skills be implemented? And how young is too young to introduce STEM education to children?

These courses need to be taught by engaged and enthusiastic teachers using hands-on and minds-on activities.

The Benefits of Robotics in STEM Education

Over the next five years, STEM education will have an even greater impact on the knowledge structure for innovation, spurring the next generation of visionaries. In order to expose more students to computer science, 17 states have passed legislation to create basic math and science requirements in the curriculum, rather than count them as electives. With coding and programming driving education, these skills will become more essential than ever before. After all, Oxford University estimates that as many as 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be wholly automated in the next 20 years. Given this information, it’s vital to implement programming and coding heavily into today’s educational programs, so that students have a firm grasp of the mechanisms behind it. It also ensures today’s students keep pace with the rate of innovation in the workplace.

As STEM courses become part of the core curriculum in schools around the world, robots and robotics will begin to serve as the central force of STEM education. We’re seeing robotics set on a course to impact wide-ranging fields such as medicine, military and disaster relief. In fact, looking ahead to 2019, it is predicted that 25 percent of all jobs will be offloaded to robots. Additionally, robots are increasingly being used as entertaining, interactive toys for children, creating opportunities for learning. As a result, children gain STEM skillsets by practicing, repeating and growing their coding abilities. The impact of robotics is unavoidable, which makes STEM skills both essential and synonymous with the future of work.

The Challenges of Implementing STEM too Early

STEM education focuses on helping students develop critical thinking and innovation skills, which is what they will need to succeed after high school. In order for students to develop a passion for these fields and the motivation to succeed in them, STEM education must be emphasized while students are still in kindergarten and elementary school. Why not earlier? STEM programs are typically very hands-on and intellectually challenging, so while it’s essential to introduce STEM to children at a young age, we need to also examine the challenges that may come with introducing it too early.

If STEM education is applied in children too young, they can actually be put at a disadvantage. A child’s cognitive development has not truly been shaped until approximately the age of five making it challenging for them to truly understand and grasp certain subject matters. However, that timeframe between kindergarten and fourth grade is essential to a child understanding STEM and the lack of practice during these school years can be detrimental to their overall success in these fields. In fact, approximately 40 percent of U.S. children are not ready for kindergarten and too many end up reaching the fourth grade lacking key science and math skills.

In order for children to truly succeed in STEM, their kindergarten education must focus on observation rather than concrete practice. This is more commonly known as teaching STEM through the process of play vs. learning. Play-based curriculum is acknowledged as a key factor in effective early learning. This education route lets children take the lead in exploring and asking open-ended questions that ultimately cause children to reflect on their actions, form theories and begin thinking strategically. In contrast, curriculum that features direct instruction is essential to building a child’s STEM skills and knowledge. However, a high percentage of pre-kindergarten teachers do not know or understand their role in early STEM education creating another challenge for students looking to learn and understand STEM at an early age. The lack of guidelines among STEM educators in schools around the world can put children at a disadvantage when that teacher leaves or retires.

Because STEM is so important for our children, we need to encourage the students currently in our educational systems, as well as future generations of students, to understand and embrace the technology that affects their lives everyday. Students should be advised on the merits of taking as many math and science courses in middle and high school as possible. And these courses need to be taught by engaged and enthusiastic teachers using hands-on and minds-on activities. Making science and math courses fun and interesting will not only help students to learn, but might also plant the seed of interest that could grow into an exciting and rewarding STEM career.

Ricky Ye is CEO of DFRobot, a dream factory for robo-holics. Their diverse team includes a former nuclear submarine technician, bluechip company senior engineer, artist, hacker and software guru. A robotics and open source hardware provider, they cater to hardware engineers, DIY enthusiasts and interactive designers, providing over 900 components and widgets, from sensors and robotic platforms to communication modules and 3D printers.

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