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A Call for Research, Training, and Standards for Early-Childhood STEM

Children have an inclination toward exploring their environments, as anyone who has ever spent time with a preschooler and some bubbles can attest.

But just how to cultivate the youngest students' interest and abilities in science, technology, engineering, and math has been of increasing interest to U.S. educators, policymakers, and businesses, who argue that more students need to learn about those subjects to be prepared for the workforce. Last spring, the White House announced a set of initiatives aimed at promoting early-childhood education in STEM.  

report released this week calls for developing and promoting high-quality standards for STEM in early childhood that align with states' standards for K-12 schools, improving the training of teachers by offering fellowships and reshaping their preparation programs, and making STEM offerings a requirement for preschool accreditation. It also calls for more research on early childhood and STEM and better resources to help teachers and parents. 

The report was developed by the Early Childhood STEM Working Group, which was organized by UChicago STEM Education, a research and development center at the University of Chicago, and the Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based graduate school in child development. The group has been working for two years to develop a set of guiding principles and recommendations intended to improve STEM education for the youngest students. 

The authors of the new report write that there is a need to link the public's interest in STEM with its interest in early childhood: "With so much attention focused on early-childhood education and STEM education separately, our aim in this report is to build on the current momentum and public discourse to create and enact an ambitious but achievable vision for the future of young children's STEM education." 

Currently, only 5 percent of time in early-childhood educational settings is devoted to STEM subjects, according to research shared at a conference earlier this year organized by New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.  

Some 40 states have updated their standards or guidelines for early childhood since 2012, according to the report. But only one state—Pennsylvania—specifically includes STEM as a topic in its standards. All states include math and some include science, but many states' standards for early childhood aren't fully aligned with their K-12 standards.

Even if new standards are developed, the authors write, there will still be work to do: Many teachers and adults aren't confident in their own abilities in STEM subjects. Most early-childhood programs favor literacy over STEM, but the authors write that more time spent on STEM can help build students' literacy. 

The guiding principles laid out in the report are that:

  • Children need adults to develp their "natural" STEM inclinations.
  • Representation and communications are central to STEM learning. 
  • Adults' beliefs and attitudes about STEM affect children's beliefs and attitudes about STEM.
  • STEM education is not culturally neutral.

The group's recommendations

  • It's important to "spark awareness" of the importance of science in early childhood among policymakers, educators, and the public. 
  • Preservice training for early-childhood teachers should be revamped to focus more on STEM.
  • Parents and families need supports to encourage children's early-childhood education in STEM.
  • Educators need more classroom resources about STEM that are appropriate for early childhood.
  • States should create standards for early-childhood STEM that are aligned with K-12 standards in the subjects.
  • Researchers should focus on early-childhood STEM.

Check out the full report, called "Early STEM Matters, here".


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