Watch a group of very young children engaged in planting a community garden. What are they learning? They are starting to grasp fundamental concepts about science and the natural world—how much water is needed, what roots are for, how a plant’s growth changes with the seasons, and so forth. These are ideas that lay the groundwork for deeper learning about environmental science and plant biology, critical thinking skills, problem solving, and trial and error. Whether it is gardening, building forts, stacking blocks, playing at the water table, or lining up by height in the classroom, children demonstrate a clear readiness to engage in STEM learning early in life.
With this introduction, a report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, titled “STEM Starts Early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood,” argues for increasing children’s early exposure to STEM topics. While many people think that “little kids should learn the basics first,” or “science and math are too hard for children to grasp,” others argue that children are natural scientists in how they explore the world around them; and because they have innate abilities to explore and play, an early exposure to STEM can give children enthusiasm for these subjects in later life.
Researchers from the Cooney Center and the New America Foundation conducted interviews with stakeholders, including STEM researchers, education policymakers, teachers and parents, to better understand the opportunities for, and challenges to, increasing children’ exposure to STEM topics in preschool and early elementary education. From this input, they developed a series of recommendations “to help stimulate research and policy agendas” through collaboration among stakeholders. Specifically, the report offers five findings, and six policy recommendations to address them. The findings include:
Both parents and teachers appear to be enthusiastic and capable of supporting early STEM learning; however, they require additional knowledge and support to do so effectively.
Teachers in early childhood environments need more robust training and professional development to effectively engage young children in developmentally appropriate STEM learning.
Parents and technology help connect school, home, and other learning environments like libraries and museums to support early STEM learning.
Research and public policies play a critical role in the presence and quality of STEM learning in young children’s lives, and both benefit from sustained dialogue with one another and with teachers in the classroom.
An empirically-tested, strategic communications effort is needed to convey an accurate understanding of developmental science to the public, leading to support for meaningful policy change around early STEM learning.
The recommendations, therefore, are:
Engage parents: Support parent confidence and efficacy as their children’s first and most important STEM guides.
Support teachers: Improve training and institutional support for teaching early STEM.
Connect learning: Support and expand the web of STEM learning “charging stations” [e.g., libraries and museums, as well as in-home digital access] available to children.
Transform early childhood education: Build a sustainable and aligned system of high quality early learning from birth through age 8.
Reprioritize research: Improve the way early STEM research is funded and conducted.
Across all these recommended actions, use insights from communications science to build public will for and understanding of early STEM learning.
Taken together, these recommendations will create the underlying infrastructure for a STEM delivery system that will enhance learning opportunities now, by giving children new ways to develop problem-solving skills, and will then create a stronger workforce in the future.