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Early-childhood STEM: Less talk, more action

8 min read


Catching flies

One of my teaching colleagues used to say, “It’s a lot easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar.” As a result of this article, I may have to settle for fewer flies but more buzz.

Elementary education overemphasizes literacy at the expense of disciplines that lead to greater academic, professional and personal success for adults. By placing STEM disciplines at the center of elementary education, we lay the foundation necessary to meet adult personal and professional challenges while providing an environment in which to apply the 3Rs.

Reading and writing are important and valuable skills, but without a context they are as useful as a nail without a hammer and wood. Most of us will not write a novel, but all of us will encounter challenging problems that require focus, critical thinking and teamwork to solve. Early engagement and reflection on STEM activities provides opportunities to develop cognitive and non-intellectual skills important for success in later years while offering plenty of chances to apply reading and writing.

20 years of stagnation?

In 20 years as a STEM educator, I have rarely gone a day without hearing or reading two common refrains about elementary education. If these themes were reduced to bumper sticker slogans they would read as follows: Elementary teachers fear science. Children are born scientists.

If we have known for at least 20 years that elementary teachers struggle to teach science yet their audience laps it up like ice cream, why little change?

First, most elementary teachers come out of general education programs as opposed to earning a degree in a STEM field and applying it to teaching. Thus, K-5 teachers lack experience carrying out scientific investigations and feel unprepared to facilitate science education in the classroom. Next, the U.S. population continues to identify elementary education with learning to read, write and perform basic mathematics. No Child Left Behind only exacerbated this impression by emphasizing literacy and numeracy at the expense of other subjects. As a nation, we shortchange science due to emphasis on the 3Rs.

Elementary-school class time dedicated to science fell from 3.0 to 2.3 hours per week between 1994 and 2008. And 2.3 hours of science represents 7% of a student’s school week. In contrast, elementary students spend 36% of their time learning English. Finally, emphasis on high-stakes test scores often leads to teaching to the test rather than employing best practices in learning and teaching. STEM education includes project-based learning and performance-based assessment, methods of learning and evaluation that paint fuller pictures of individuals rather than reduce students to statistical values.

Granted, I am generalizing and perhaps exaggerating the current status of K-5 science and engineering education, but after 20 years of the “same old same old,” I remain frustrated by the lack of change.

Of teachers and students

The phrase “children are naturally scientists” is one we hear often. Their curiosity and need to make the world a more predictable place certainly drives them to explore and draw conclusions and theories from their experiences. But left to themselves, they are not quite natural scientists. Children need guidance and structure to turn their natural curiosity and activity into something more scientific. They need to practice science — to engage in rich scientific inquiry. Karen Worth, “Science in Early Childhood Classrooms: Content and Process”.

Worth makes a great point — elementary students only take their exploration of natural phenomena so far alone. Students need well-prepared adults to facilitate and support scientific investigations from inception to completion. Unfortunately, many of the individuals who elect to teach children in their most formative years do not see themselves as teachers of science. Many adults elect to teach grades K-5 because they identify with the role of an elementary teacher and elementary education as perceived by society in general and outlined above.

One does not need to be a scientist to facilitate elementary level scientific exploration. I believe that elementary teachers have or can develop the necessary skills to teach science. Often they lack the confidence to teach science or have had poor experiences of learning science from which to draw. I have observed and provided teacher professional development to elementary teachers for the teaching of science. With guidance, many adults really enjoy engaging in STEM processes such as experimentation, data analysis or completing a design challenge. For years, professional development and pre-service education programs have emphasized science as a way of knowing as opposed to as a body of knowledge to memorize, yet the majority of elementary teachers remain fearful of implementing inquiry-based STEM curricula. They revert to content delivery mimicking their own science education experiences.

Educators long ago agreed that best practices require rethinking the student-teacher relationship. Most teachers I’ve worked with understand and appreciate that teaching science requires them to act as a facilitator for constructing knowledge rather than as a fount for dispensing it. These are not new ideas about best practices in teaching STEM or any other discipline. Due to recent emphasis on standardized tests, learning has taken a back seat to testing.

Teachers that formerly engaged in creative, project-based inquiry have resigned themselves to teaching to tests. This has resulted in a regression of science education, especially in middle- and high-school years where standardized science tests were first implemented. Elementary teachers do not necessarily feel the same pressures. Fortunately, most adults recognize the importance of exploration in early childhood education. Elementary education capitalizes upon students’ need to make sense of their world. There is no better time than elementary school to lay a foundation for exploration and reflection of the natural and designed world, for asking questions and brainstorming answers and for testing ones ideas. Yet, few elementary schools recognize the opportunity to infuse STEM into the curriculum at this age.

From STEM to success

Studying science, engineering and mathematics while employing technology engages students in what the National Research Council calls “Scientific and Engineering Practices”; skills most adults would recognize as key to future success. Moreover, recent research suggests attention to non-cognitive skills is also critical to success as adults. STEM content regularly engages students in these important non-intellectual skills. We find that GED recipients tend to be as smart as other high school graduates who do not attend college but lack other, non-cognitive abilities. More generally, the present investigation suggests that adolescents can learn relatively simple self-regulation strategies that dramatically improve their ability to attain long-term academic goals, according to the article “Self-regulation Strategies Improve Self-discipline in Adolescents: Benefits of Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions” that appeared in Educational Psychology.

Research in fields as diverse as economics and psychology suggest that measures of non-cognitive skills, such as self-discipline, provide better indicators of academic and career success than tests of IQ. Fortunately, with instruction and support, non-intellectual skills improve at any age. STEM education requires non-cognitive skills such as self-discipline. Scientific experiments, engineering design challenges and mathematical calculations require patience and multiple iterations before delivering results or solving problems. Thus, in addition to encouraging the development of critical thinking and problem solving, students who engage in STEM disciplines also have more opportunity to develop and apply “soft skills” highly valued by employers and indicators of adult success.

Less talk, more action

In their paper, “Refueling the U.S. Innovation Economy: Fresh Approaches to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education” (2010), authors Robert D. Atkinson and Merrilea Mayo challenge readers to rethink STEM education. They see the current trend as promoting “some STEM for all” when the nation needs to move toward a model of “all STEM for some.” Theirs is an interesting proposition. If I understand their vision correctly, in the early years of education, all students would receive STEM education, but as students progress through grades K-12 due to interest and talent, some would specialize in STEM disciplines whereas others might elect the arts and humanities. Regardless of whether we elect the “all STEM for some” approach, it’s definitely time for less talk and more action at the elementary level.

Here are a few concrete steps schools can take to infuse STEM throughout the curriculum:

  • Hire elementary teachers with experience in science, mathematics and engineering.
  • Use STEM curricula to provide a context for reading, writing, mathematics and the use of simple tools and technologies; there are many fine products available for free and for fee.
  • Engage the community to explain how and why STEM provides an important context for learning the 3Rs.
  • Increase the time allotted for STEM education; do science every day.
  • Develop and employ performance-based assessments; the NGSS will likely reinforce this approach.
  • Develop relationships with local industry and higher education to provide elementary teachers with STEM professional development opportunities and resources.
  • Partner with post-secondary education institutions to participate or create programs designed to improve the teaching of science in primary schools.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.