The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America Foundation just released their 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 2 - It's not just little learners that have anxiety around STEM topics. Parents, and even teachers, don't always feel comfortable diving into science and math.
Q: How can parents and educators effectively check on our biases (and maybe anxieties!) about science and math in approaching these topics with young children?
McClure: The first step is just to be aware of those biases! Parents and teachers are some of the most influential STEM guides in a child’s life, so when parents and teachers show that they are anxious about STEM topics or demonstrate that they don’t think they’re as important as other domains, or that they are more important for boys than girls, the children quickly pick up on these attitudes and carry them with them into the future. But, conversely, when parents and teachers are confident and enthusiastic about STEM topics and engage the children in developmentally tailored STEM activities, they pass along that excitement to their children.
In terms of what you can do right now, today, I would say: just start feeding your own curiosity! It’s a little like the old “stop and smell the roses” idea. Start being more aware of all the amazing things around you, encourage your own wonder, and then openly express that. Be vocal about saying “Wow!” and, instead of feeling pressured to answer all your students’ “Why? Why? Why?” questions, start asking “Why?” back, and start answering with, “I don’t know! I wonder if…” and then collaborating with students to find ways to answer your questions together. STEM isn’t just a set of topic areas – it is, fundamentally, a way of thinking. So, as a teacher, when you model those ways of thinking as a co-learner (rather than an information-giver), you are nurturing that way of thinking in them as well. If you can cultivate that wonder and curiosity in yourself and in them, then children will have the tools to acquire the content they encounter.
Q: We loved that the report highlighted STEM work already happening in preschool classrooms! How do we better close the loop between longstanding "engineering" and scientific exploration taking place in early childhood settings (fort building, block play, etc.) and building a classroom culture of scientific inquiry that represents what we now know children are capable of?
McClure: The key here is to notice when it’s already taking place, to realize that the child is not only capable of attaining the goal (getting the object) but also of meeting the challenge (solving the problem) with your support, and then take advantage of that opportunity by engaging the child in an interaction that encourages their scientific inquiry. Children already have that natural curiosity – we say they are “born scientists” – but they need your support to grow that curiosity into true STEM skills and habits of mind.
Q: So much STEM early learning happens at home. How can teachers use documentation to illustrate STEM learning and encourage parental buy-in?
McClure: It can be really helpful, when talking to parents, to explain it in this way: STEM learning is a lot like learning a language. If we want our children to become fluent in STEM, they need to be immersed in STEM learning and be able to practice it across all areas of their lives.
Parents have an enormous opportunity as their child’s first teachers, as well as a consistent presence as they grow and across their environments, to help connect the dots between separate learning experiences and make their learning truly immersive.
And it’s so important for parents to understand that we’re not talking about doing massive science fair projects at home every night. We’re talking about things like keeping an eye out for opportunities to ask their children the “WH” questions – “Who, what, when, where, why?” We’re talking about noticing when their child is experimenting with something, in all those thousands of ways they do every day, and helping to scaffold that process and make it more explicit. Parents don’t need to be experts – they just need to be willing to learn alongside their children, encouraging them to ask questions, and to participate with their child in trying to figure out the answers.
In Part Three of our interview, we'll explore policy and curriculum recommendations for better incorporating STEM holistically into early learning environments.