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STEM Education: A Case for Early Learning

Russell Shilling is the Executive Director of STEM in the Office of Innovation and Improvement.

G.K. Chesterton captured the essence of early-childhood when he said, “Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.” Every child is imbued with a sense of curiosity and wonder. They are born scientists, engineers, and creators ready to discover the world at every turn. The goal of education should be to sustain this engagement throughout a lifetime.

While working with Sesame Street on programs for military children, I was struck that most of our federal Science, Technology, Education, and Math (STEM) programs concentrated on encouraging interest in Middle and High School students. From an early learning perspective it makes more sense to engage children in STEM in pre-K. Instead of winning them back to STEM, what if we never lose them? This idea has become a priority for our STEM team at the U.S. Department of Education.

STEM in Early Learning

Unfortunately, we do not know as much as we need to about how to effectively integrate STEM into early learning. Most early learning research in STEM focuses on mathematics. Even here we need to know more. For example, The What Works Clearing House (WWC) has published an educator’s practice guide, “Teaching Math to Young Children” for ages 3 – 6. The guide outlines five recommendations from a panel of early education experts on how to teach and integrate math instruction throughout the school day; it is a very useful report and a sorely needed resource. However, the research underlying these recommendations is based on minimal evidence as defined by the WWC. More research investment is needed, aimed at developing and validating best practices across the entire STEM spectrum, to better guide educators toward practices that we know work.

A Call to Action

Work is underway at the U.S. Department of Education to identify best practices for introducing STEM in early learning. In 2015, our Ready to Learn grant program provided $25M to create innovative media aimed at promoting science and literacy to low-income children (pre-K-3). Meanwhile, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have funded research focused on a variety of STEM programs, including pre-K. We are excited to see how these varied investments develop. But, more needs to be done!

We need our partners in both the public and private sectors to take up the challenge and help us to answer these and other questions: What types of active learning strategies work best for young children? How do we encourage curiosity and creativity that lasts a lifetime? What roles do computer science and computational thinking play for young children? How do we best leverage technology in the classroom? Most importantly, how do we prepare educators?

Stay tuned! In the upcoming year, the U.S. Department of Education will help lead conversations for identifying what we know about best practices for teaching STEM to young children and to develop a research agenda for filling in the gaps where our knowledge is incomplete.

Many scientists and engineers today were inspired by the Space program when they were young children. How do we inspire this generation and the next? Every child regardless of socio-economic status, race, gender, urban, or rural upbringing, should understand the role STEM plays in the world and see themselves as an active part of that world. We need to identify the best ways to inspire and educate our youngest students in STEM and give them the critical skills they need to adapt and succeed throughout their lifetimes.