STEM Has Roots in Early Childhood

Research shows that even the youngest brains are capable of beginning to understand STEM concepts, but only if they are given the opportunity to explore and discover.

A child marvels at a butterfly that has emerged from a cocoon in her backyard.

A toddler plays with building blocks, balancing a small one on top of a big one.

A baby learns the concept of cause-and-effect by putting his hands over his eyes.

These young children are all engaging in a rudimentary form of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning. Adults might associate the term with middle school science fairs or technology start-ups, but the truth is the youngest kids are capable of, and naturally inclined toward, STEM-type learning.

“As any parent knows, children are born curious,” said Roberto Rodríguez, deputy assistant to the president for education. “They’re born natural scientists.”

Rodríguez was kicking off the Early STEM Learning Symposium at the White House on April 21. There, officials, educators, researchers, and education technologists gathered to celebrate—and call for more—innovative STEM learning geared toward young children.

Research shows that even the youngest brains are capable of beginning to understand STEM concepts, but only if they are given the opportunity to explore and discover. Patricia Kuhl, University of Washington professor of speech and hearing sciences, has studied how children’s brains grow based on experiences they have starting at seven months.

“To get all the foundations of STEM into the brain early in development, we have to let children’s natural curiosity” blossom, Kuhl said at the White House symposium. “Playing with objects like blocks, playing with water, will feed that brain that wants to tinker with objects, and wants to have an effect on others in the world.”

But why devote a day at the White House to the topic? Because STEM learning can start early, and the STEM achievement gap does too.

A recent study published in Educational Researcher found that girls, as well as children who are racial or ethnic minorities, English language learners, or from low-income homes, demonstrated lower levels of science achievement as early as third grade. These kids typically continued to lag through middle school.

“It’s not a level playing field,” Kuhl said. “You can see, by the age of 5, huge effects of the opportunities to learn.”

Young learners lose out when adults underestimate what they are capable of. With well-paying jobs increasingly demanding a workforce that is well-versed in math and technology, it behooves the public and private sectors to make sure all children have access to STEM education, said leaders at the White House event. That support includes proper compensation and professional development for early learning instructors, said Secretary of Education John King.

Some researchers and companies have created products geared toward developing STEM skills and interest among young children, including those in groups that are underrepresented in the fields.

GoldiBlox is a popular engineering toy designed for girls. The kits, for kids as young as four, include construction pieces and a story that presents the player with a basic engineering challenge. Some of the toys come with action figures—racially diverse girls who carry laptops along with their capes.

Scratch, the free programming language for older kids and teens, has a younger sibling called Scratch Jr. The tool introduces coding concepts to kids ages 5 to 7, who can program games and interactive stories.

In conjunction with the White House event, dozens of organizations made commitments to further STEM opportunities for young learners. The administration also recognized efforts by public and private actors, including a handful in Pittsburgh. The Fred Rogers Company was recognized for its professional development, family resources, and peg + cat,” a TV show that teaches math to preschool-age kids. The Grable Foundation was also recognized for investing in hands-on STEM learning and technology for early childhood educators, and the White House named the Frazier School District in Fayette County, Penn., for overhauling its curriculum and professional development approach to support early STEM learning.

“It’s us rethinking how we’re doing education,” said Frazier Elementary principal Kelly Muic Lombard, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We’re implementing the 21st century slant, which is kids being creative, developing their problem-solving skills, and helping them be better collaborators.”


Published May 10, 2016