Early childhood educators in Australia need to be proactive about building STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – into their programs. What holds them back?
Children are curious about things like why does ice-cream melt and why do rainbows form, these are things that affect them and their everyday lives.
By Bec Lloyd and Margaret Paton
STEM’s recent path
For several decades, Australian universities, colleges and employers have bemoaned both the number and quality of graduates from qualifications based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The problem is perceived to be so large that it’s earned its own acronym: STEM.
Many western nations face the same issue, although some observers point to an ‘anti-nerd’ culture in Australia that may have added a layer of complexity to the problem. Our focus on sport and our pride in being laid back academically may deter otherwise highly capable young people from studying courses with a reputation for being uncool and only for ‘geeks’.
Initially the public policy focus was on tertiary training – back as far as the 1980s and 90s – but just offering scholarships and encouraging the woefully under-represented female population to enrol in STEM related degrees wasn’t enough.
Look to the schools
Then the senior high school curriculum came under fire, and then the whole of high school education was criticised for failing to produce ‘future-fit’ students prepared for the jobs we didn’t know would exist until the Information Age hit us and innovation became synonymous with success.
By the 2000s, teacher shortages in STEM subjects were presented as the main problem, which occupied policy and media makers for another decade or so. Immigrant teachers were fast-tracked to visas, more scholarships were dangled in front of girls and boys alike to become maths and science teachers, and some small progress was seen in high-value career courses like Engineering and Medicine.
Pursuing the goal of making STEM mainstream in Australia, policy boffins turned their attention to primary school education.
COW carts (Computers on Wheels) were sent to classrooms, teachers were sent back to school themselves to improve maths and science skills, and the new national curriculum emphasised STEM in every aspect of learning. More and more schools introduced iPads and laptops in classrooms for senior primary students and the Smartboard revolution turned chalk into pixels.
We might not have been exposed to scientific concepts or it wasn’t very positive. We carry that with us.
Early childhood education
In Australia’s typical top-down fashion, STEM policy has well and truly landed in the early childhood education sector. And just like your colleagues in primary and secondary schools, there’s a mixed reaction to STEM in the early years.
“The elephant in the room is that many educators feel they don’t have confidence to bring ‘STEM’ to the service floor,” CELA trainer Louise Black says.
“This often is because of our experiences with science as a child.
“We might not have been exposed to scientific concepts or it wasn’t very positive. We carry that with us. That’s why it’s really important to have these concepts introduced well in early childhood so we can nurture that curiosity.”
Why does it matter?
The early childhood years are every human’s most crucial period for brain development. Not only are these the years when we naturally approach the world with a STEM perspective, but STEM activities are some of the most valuable for expanding the neurological pathways in our young brains.
The early years, in other words, are prime time for setting children on a path where they form a love of scientific inquiry (and mathematical, and technological, and engineering).
Are you there yet?
Your service is no doubt already ‘doing’ STEM – incorporating STEM concepts in a range of program activities – but you may not recognise just how many boxes you already tick. The national push is to step it up a level.
“People often think of science as an academic endeavour involving complicated experiments,” Black says.
“They may focus on demonstrating scientific concepts to children through individually planned experiments such as making a volcano or slime.”
When we do workshops we demonstrate with empty bottles, discarded pipes, ends of rope and odd sticks.
Low cost, high impact
Black says educators also may think they need to spend a lot of money to buy extra resources, such as microscopes and that it’s too expensive for them to run a program.
“Actually, you can do STEM with low-cost everyday materials that services already have or recycled items,” she says.
“When we do workshops we demonstrate with empty bottles, discarded pipes, ends of rope and odd sticks.
“I encourage educators to think resourcefully, asking families for donation and using the community resources they have around them.
“Here at Marrickville we have the wonderful Reverse Garbage centre but almost every local government rubbish tip has a recycling depot where educators can find amazing STEM materials for very little cost.
Too young to understand
Another issue is services think children are ‘too young to do science or understand STEM’.
“Children are inquisitive. We want to embrace and nurture the questions children are asking about their environment by having educators explore with the child. It often starts with the child’s question,” says Black.
“From age three to five, children’s brains developing so fast. It’s a peak time to nurture this exploration and their inquiry-based learning for them to develop a love of STEM at a young age.”
If children are asking questions about their environment and science and if you brush them aside because you don’t know about it, you’re doing them a disservice.
No time for more
Like languages, creative arts, literacy, numeracy, and other topics, when viewed as a discrete element in your educational programming STEM can feel like yet another add-on to an already overfull program or educator load.
Black says there’s another way to view it.
‘By letting children lead the learning journey with their inquiry about their environment, and the questions that follow, all those things are happening anyway: the literacy and numeracy is all incorporated in STEM… STEM discussions enhance children’s social skills as they talk with peers, learn from others including educators, problem solve and test their solutions.’
If your service isn’t intentionally teaching STEM, your children are ‘missing out’, she says.
‘If children are asking questions about their environment and science and if you brush them aside because you don’t know about it, you’re doing them a disservice.
‘Educators need to be able to facilitate children’s thinking in all areas.
‘Children are curious about things like why does ice-cream melt and why do rainbows form, these are things that affect them and their everyday lives.’
Boost your STEM
A good place to start, no matter where you are on your STEM journey, is by hooking into a workshop run by the experts from Little Scientists.
The Australian program is an adaptation of a German concept developed for the German early education system more than 10 years ago. In Germany, 47% of all children enrolled in early childhood settings benefit from this hands-on professional development program.
Heike Schneider, Manager Network Partnerships and Training at Little Scientists, says the German content has been localised for Australia. She says the content is never “finished” because it’s constantly reviewed and improved based on trainers’ and educators’ feedback from the workshop.
To deliver the program on a national scale, Little Scientists has partnered with organisations such as CELA across the country. At this stage, Little Scientists partners with more than 20 organisations and 60 trainers but the organisation is constantly growing their national network. Full day workshops cost just $112.50 per educator no matter where the workshop is held. Topics include water, air, engineering, optics, mathematics and the human body.
Black, an accredited Little Scientists trainer, says: “What’s distinctive about the program is the way it develops the different topics, the focus on exploration in play-based learning and taking up children’s interests.”
Each workshop has a topic and educational philosophies woven into it.
“For instance, in the ‘air’ workshop, we also talk about metacognition, thinking about thinking, and the importance of the educator’s role in asking questions to facilitate children’s thinking. And in the engineering workshop, we discuss the difference between the natural sciences and engineering. The natural sciences are trying to find answers about natural phenomena whereas an engineer wants to solve a problem, says Schneider.
“As part of the inquiry-based approach, we also always take the children’s prior knowledge into account as it affects how they interact with the experience as well.”
To evaluate the effectiveness of the program on children and educators, Charles Sturt University is conducting an impact measurement study with results expected in 2019.
Consider developing a ‘tool kit’ of resources and skills around STEM rather than individual activities.
What you can do now about STEM
Black and Schneider advise to think about how your service can create a setting where children can be nurtured in their exploration and discovery. Rather than put out a lot of structured toys for them to play with, set up a science corner so they can access the material anytime.
Be open to listening to their questions wherever they are in the centre. Do some hypothesising with the children and be confident to follow up on their questions and just have a go.
Consider developing a ‘tool kit’ of resources and skills around STEM rather than individual activities.
Grants for STEM resources and PD
Your service may apply for a non-competitive STEM-related grant. The Federal Government’s STEM in the Early Years Program – Grant Guidelines 2016-2020, aims to enhance STEM learning opportunities for young children. It’s offering funds for science or maths related professional development for early childhood educators. The guidelines also mention they’re funding the Little Scientists organisation to work in this area here, too.
The bottom line is, while STEM might already happen in an ad hoc way in your service, you need to be proactive about it.
Schneider says: “Inquiry-based STEM is so important because it helps children develop a whole set of really crucial skills such as resilience, problem-solving, communication and social skills, research skills and confidence in their own abilities. They need these in life not just for a potential career in science, but for life in general.”
As for educators, if you’re not upskilling and improving your skills, you’re not best placed to meet the future demands of our sector. It’s not about a one-off STEM activity on the floor, it’s building STEM into your service’s long-term strategy, says Black.