We know that STEM education has been a hot topic in recent years, but have you wondered what all the debate and fuss is over? Why does STEM matter, and why is STEM important in Early Childhood Education?
STEM encourages a hands on approach to ‘real life’ problem solving, fostering children’s natural curiosity as they are trying to make sense of their world. Lessons learned and opinions formed in early childhood are often carried through a lifetime. STEM in early childhood education aims to make learning fun.
Early Childhood Education and Brain Development
Early childhood education encompasses birth through 8 years of age (or roughly 3rd grade.)
A child’s brain development peaks around age five. According to a study on Brain Development and Early Learning, children cultivate 85% of their intellect, personality, and skills by the time they reach this age. The study further states, “The preschool years are the time in which the brain begins to maximize efficiency by determining which connections to keep and which to eliminate.”
Think about what an average kid accomplishes by the time they reach their fifth birthday. They develop gross motor skills and go from rolling over, crawling, and walking to move through the world. (One of our boys inserted a “butt scooting” phase in there as well.) Kids hone fine motor skills as they learn how to manipulate objects. They go from the bottle or breast and learn how to feed themselves. They learn how to communicate through language, both spoken and written. Kids learn how to draw and express themselves.
This is an incredible amount of learning, packed into a short amount of time. The first few years of life, kids soak up data and information like thirsty sponges.
Not only are they learning basic life skills, this is also the start of their “formal” schooling. Whether kids start in daycare, preschool, or kindergarten, what they learn can be as important at this stage as how they learn.
What we absorb during this beginning phase of both life and school forms the foundation who we are and sets the stage for who we become.
Start Early for Future Success
Skills we learn early, while our brains are are forming connections, stay with us well into later life.
A study at University of Denver found preschool mathematics skills be used as an indicator of how a child performs into high school. Makes sense, good at math as a kid, there’s a good change being good at math as a teen.
A surprising revelation from the study was that surprising was that the preschool math knowledge also predicts reading achievements. More surprising is that math aptitude was a better indicator of reading achievement than does so better than early reading skills.
The study goes on to say that even though children have a great capacity to learn, they often are not given the opportunity. As a result, they may lag behind and begin to dislike math, and that, “These negative effects are in one of the most important subjects of academic life and also affect children’s overall life course.”
Just as what we learn is important in early childhood, what we think and opinions we form have a long reach as well.
Benefits of STEM Education in Elementary Schools
Notable science educator Steve Spengler stated, “Research shows that most children have formed an opinion (either positive or negative) about science by the time they reach the age of 7.”
The key piece that stands out is that either a positive or negative opinion is formed, and this feeling about science will likely follow the child through their schooling.
Spengler further observes, “That puts a tremendous about of responsibility on early childhood professionals, especially with all of the emphasis being placed on STEM education,” and that “actions today in the area of early childhood science education will have a greater impact on growing next generation scientists than any other STEM initiative currently being discussed…”
Not only is there an advantage to capitalizing on early brain development, but opinions formed early in a child’s life can have astounding impact.
Tony Murphy, executive director of the National Center for STEM Elementary Education at St. Catherine University, echos this opinion and takes it one step further. In an interview with USNews, Murphy states that research shows “by the time students reach fourth grade, a third of boys and girls have lost an interest in science. By eighth grade, almost 50% have lost interest or deemed (science) irrelevant to their education or future plans.”
That’s staggering. By the time kids are entering their teens, half of them have written off science. There is already more growth in STEM fields and careers than their are qualified candidates to fill. This further cuts the kids going into some areas of STEM study by half.
Murphy also notes, “Children at birth are natural scientists, engineers, and problem-solvers. They consider the world around them and try to make sense of it the best way they know how: touching, tasting, building, dismantling, creating, discovering, and exploring. For kids, this isn’t education. It’s fun!”
STEM is important in early childhood education and elementary levels to channel this innate sense of exploration kids already have. Check out this video of STEM in action and see how engaged these kids are. What opinions about science and learning do you think they’re building?
Learning by Doing – Experiential Learning and STEM
Phil Geldart, founder and CEO at Eagle’s Flight, is an advocate of learning through experience (or Experiential Learning) and states that retention through traditional learning is only 5%. That’s hardly learning at all.
When experiential learning is applied, the retention dramatically increases to 80-90%. That’s an astounding difference! It makes me wonder why anyone wouldn’t shift toward experiential learning given the dramatic increase.
Though these figures are from a study of adults in the workplace, the concepts apply directly to children as well. Perhaps even more so; just think of the positive affect experiential learning would have when applied in early childhood education before kids learn limitations.
The hands on approach of STEM helps kids experience new ideas instead of just reading a textbook chapter on a topic or sitting through a lecture.
Often the hands on portion comes in the form of activities and games, especially in preschool through elementary. Lessons presented this way are more engaging than the traditional approach of listen to a lecture, read the textbook, and do the homework.
While kids won’t be cracking quantum theory or curing cancer in kindergarten, they will be learning how to learn. And just as important, kids will be forming opinions and attitudes that will ripple out through their lives. An idea as limiting as “Math is hard” or “I don’t like school” can crush a child’s enthusiasm and possibly, their success.
Sure, new ideas and opinions can be learned later in life, though it takes considerable more leverage than adopting a love for learning early on. On the flip side, if children can form early ideas that “Learning is fun” or “Science is cool” these thoughts can put them on a much different trajectory.
The Most Important Questions
An approach to education that caters children’s sense of natural curiosity seems so obvious. How often have you heard a child ask, “But, why?” only to receive their answer and ask again, “But, WHY?”
My son is relentless with barrages of, “But, why Daddy?” As a parent, it can sometimes be exhausting. I sometimes have to take a breath and remind myself he’s not being difficult or trying to push my buttons. He just honestly wants to know how the world works. And drilling several layers of “why” into any topic is where the real answers live. Why is just the start.
Usually when we’ve gotten to the end of “Why” is when his little brain moves on to, “But How?” Now we’re really digging into they way things work. And these are the questions that solve problems. What we need to do at an early age, is get them from “How” and “Why” to “What if…?”
As parents and educators, we need to embrace the wide eyed wonder with which children approach the world. In a child’s eyes, everything is new and the world is full of mystery. We owe it to them to give them to tools and the knowledge to follow their curiosity.
Why is STEM Important in Early Childhood – Wrap Up
Al child’s brain is like a sponge during their early years of development. Kids are learning everything from how to control their bodies, how to communicate, and are forming the foundation of their personality. The capacity for learning at this stage of life is off the charts compared to later years.
The ideas and attitudes formed in the early years are likely to last a lifetime. STEM learning focuses on hands on and engaging problem solving skills that will foster a love of learning that can last a lifetime. Early childhood is the best time to introduce STEM learning for maximum impact.