Pt. 1 - Why Does "STEM" Start Early?

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America Foundation just released its STEM Starts Early report, exploring science, technology, engineering, and math learning for young children. We had the chance to ask lead author Elisabeth McClure a few questions about the report, for a three-part blog series.

In part one of our conversation, we discussed why now is the time for exploring STEM early learning, and why we should think of early childhood education as an "ecological system."

Q: What was the genesis for coming together to work on this report on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) early learning?

In December 2013, several members of our team attended a STEM Smart workshop, cohosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Smithsonian Institution, and Education Development Center, with the intent of reaching early childhood practitioners. We saw that participants were delighted to learn of evidence-based practices and tools, but many declared that they felt too constrained by current school structures and policies to apply what they were learning. They voiced concerns about the misapplication of new education standards, disconnects between preschool and elementary school practices, and an underprepared workforce.

In response to these concerns and the growing scientific consensus about the importance of early STEM learning, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America embarked on an exploratory project, funded by the NSF, to: (a) better understand the challenges to and opportunities in STEM learning as documented in a review of early childhood education research, policy, and practice; (b) make recommendations to help stimulate research and policy agendas; and (c) encourage collaboration between pivotal sectors to implement and sustain needed changes. We also accounted for new research on widely held public assumptions about what young children need and how they learn, assumptions that may be barriers to progress. This report is the culmination of those efforts, and it was, at its heart, inspired by the struggles voiced by early childhood practitioners themselves. 

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report

Q: Why describe early learning as an ecological system? How can we apply that framing to other areas of early childhood development?

In education, the impact of multiple, interrelated environments and systems on the child is considerable and affects everyone involved. Educators cannot successfully teach without adequate training and resources, the support of their schools, and parent engagement; researchers cannot produce relevant studies without the support of available funds, the contribution and support of educators in the classroom, and an understanding of the political systems in which their work will be applied; policy makers cannot institute effective policies without the comprehension of the public, the cooperation of teachers, and the support of solid research; and children cannot learn at their full potential without the alignment of all these factors.

 Ultimately, we felt that we couldn’t discuss any one of these factors without addressing them all. We chose to use Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems model, which deeply influences our thinking across all areas of child development at the Cooney Center, as a way to discuss the whole child and the complex, interrelated environments that affect them both directly and indirectly. This model and the idea that, to understand child development fully, we need to consider the child within a series of interconnected and nested systems, can be applied to literally any area of child development.

For those who are curious, the nested systems are defined as follows (best understood in conjunction with Figure 1 on page 13 of the report):

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report

Courtesy of the STEM Starts Early Report


The microsystem is the first circle around the child, the environments in which he or she is rooted. These include the home, classroom, childcare or after-school program, and church or other local community settings—and, of course, the people and experiences within those settings. The next circle is called the mesosystem, which acknowledges the relationships between the microsystem environments. For example, the ways that the child’s schooling affects his or her home life and vice versa, directly or indirectly, or the ways that an adult’s training and level of stress could affect that person’s ability to make a positive impact on the child would be included in this system. The exosystem includes the societal structures and institutions that do not directly contain the child but can directly or indirectly affect him or her—for example, government policies and the research that spurs those policies. Finally, the outermost circle, called the macrosystem, consists of the cultural frames, paradigms, values, and models that shape the environment within which the child learns.


Q: The report focuses on STEM, as opposed to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). What led to that decision in framing? How can teachers, parents, and non-traditional educators use a STEAM framing to enhance the learning experience?

We believe that STEM is already present in just about everything. STEM is about a way of thinking, not just about specific content – so it is present in the arts, in literacy, in play, in music, in history, you name it. For that reason it’s already problematic, in a way, that we’ve isolated S, T, E, and M for discussion in the first place, and our main goal was to reintegrate those letters back into all the rest of children’s learning experiences. If we were only to add an A, we would be excluding all the other letters in the alphabet! So rather than grabbing just one additional letter/domain and pulling it into this isolated moniker, we tried to focus instead on immersing these four letters back into the process of holistic learning.

Learning is a process of weaving skills together: no single strand can do all the work and all need to be present, strong, and integrated. As we learn new skills, our brains weave these strands together into braided skill ropes. We use these ropes to do all the complex things that we need to be able to do to function well in school and in life: solve problems, work with others, formulate and express our ideas, and make and learn from mistakes as we grow. Solving problems using data, and experimenting in science, technology, engineering, and math, help us develop strong strands that we can then use in weaving many different kinds of skill ropes. At every age, children need opportunities to practice and learn how to weave these STEM strands into different ropes, depending on the needs of a given task or situation. When kids have strong STEM strands, they can use them for all kinds of things that they will need to be able to do throughout their lives.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview — on how parents and educators can address their own anxieties around STEM (eek!) and incorporate STEM learning into everyday play.