Worth the Investment

Saying yes to STEM programs in early childhood education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kimberly Mecham

credit-st-thomas-schoolYoung children are naturally curious and often ask questions about the world around them. Many of these seemingly simple questions, such as “why do rocks sink” or “why do birds have feathers,” are actually laying the foundation for science, math, engineering and math (STEM) education. Research shows that encouraging children’s natural curiosity through early STEM education positively impacts all aspects of learning, predicting future success in not only math and science, but also reading. Despite these findings, STEM programs are still not widespread in elementary education.

As science and technology play increasingly important roles in our world, it is critical that we prepare children by introducing the skills they need to be successful at an early age.

Educators know that focusing on STEM pays off, but there are still some roadblocks slowing the adoption of STEM programs in young childhood education. These obstacles typically occur in the areas of curriculum and instruction, educator development and standards.

There’s no denying that integrating STEM into a school’s curriculum is a financial investment. The costs associated with building computer labs and purchasing new software often discourages administrators from offering STEM programs to students at such a young age. Similarly, the expense and time requirements of training teachers in order to build proficiency on the subject matter also can prevent teachers and administrators from buying in. In order to get staff members on board, stakeholders must raise awareness around the pay-off that offering these programs at a young age can generate increased interest in higher education and STEM careers, and interest in hobbies that traditional curriculum might not have inspired in young students.

Education standards present another potential roadblock. Education standards outline the learning requirements students must meet before entering the next grade level, and some parents and teachers may express concern that integrating STEM makes the standards too difficult for young children and that  the children are not ready to learn the material that STEM programs cover. It is important to alleviate these concerns by educating administrators, teachers and parents about the benefits of starting STEM early and showing them that STEM curriculum can be tailored for different age groups. STEM programs for younger children can be as simple as using blocks to help them learn about engineering concepts. Presenting STEM programs step-by-step creates a strong foundation of the skills that will become increasingly important throughout a student’s academic and professional career. Raising awareness about this will help dispel the misconception that young students could become overwhelmed by material they can’t comprehend or a technology tool they can’t operate.

Although the areas mentioned above present roadblocks to STEM success, they are the key to a successful STEM program. Organizations that are able to master these areas and communicate the benefits of introducing STEM in early childhood education to stakeholders, are transforming education and creating unlimited opportunities for students as young as the age of three.

Examples of successful STEM programs currently available in early childhood education include robotics, coding, and virtual reality (VR). VR is traditionally recognized as being beneficial in business, gaming and social media, but it has begun to make its way into education. Starting in second grade, St. Thomas School integrates VR into the curriculum, allowing teachers to create a three-dimensional learning environment for their young students. Ten years ago, students would only be able to see pictures or diagrams of body parts; today, 3-D VR computer programs allow St. Thomas School’s students to perform dissections right before their eyes. This visually stimulating and hands-on learning experience leads to an increased engagement levels and even new interest on the subject at hand. Through investing in VR STEM programs, schools could begin to see pay-off in many ways, including potentially fostering a student’s desire to pursue a career in STEM.

Another use case of STEM in early childhood education is through the introduction of robotics. At St. Thomas School, our teachers use robots as a hands-on way for students to experience and learn engineering at an early age. At the age of four, students are introduced to basic wooden programming blocks and each year they progress to more complex scenarios until they are working with an android-like robot. Through constructing a robot’s parts and programming it to complete real-world tasks, students are challenged to understand and explain their design choices. By mastering these skills, students witness the life cycle of their actions, determining results in a visual and collaborative way. Schools that support robotics programs empower students to feel confident as creators of technology, rather than settle as a passive consumer of technology and information.

It is not just the responsibility of the teachers and administrators to introduce STEM subjects to young children early, it’s also important for parents to introduce these subjects before children start preschool and continue skill building at home once the concepts have been introduced in the classroom.  Because STEM focuses heavily on technology, parents should welcome technology into their child’s daily life and establish a healthy balance at home. St. Thomas School offers an opportunity for parents to interact with the technology used in STEM programs. Hosting these events provides parents with a better understanding of how they can support STEM education outside of school.

As science and technology play increasingly important roles in our world, it is critical that we prepare children by introducing the skills they need to be successful at an early age. Creating new curriculum is never easy, but it has been proven that starting STEM education early is well worth the investment.

Kimberly Mecham is Director of Information and Communication Technology at St. Thomas School.

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