Shoring Up the Foundation of STEM Education

 STEM learning can capture students’ imagination, but making it work for all ages remains a challenge.

STEM learning can capture students’ imagination, but making it work for all ages remains a challenge.

Here to stay, it seems

The STEM education wave is nearly 20 years old, and it shows no signs of receding. A coinage of the early 2000’s that surfaced first in National Science Foundation grants, “STEM education” has become a foundational concept in American education.

It is hailed as both a vital workforce development asset and a method for integrating learning across disciplines. And it underpins growing interest in topics like “new collar” jobs, early-college high school, and the fusion of academic content with career and technical education.

A foundation to shore up

However, all of this educational weight sits atop the slenderest of reeds in the STEM education landscape: the capacity of elementary educators to prepare their students for success in STEM-related topics as they move on to middle and high school studies.

To be sure, this condition is no fault of elementary educators. But their keystone role in fostering students’ capacity for and interest in STEM learning makes elementary STEM education an urgent issue for a parade of downstream stakeholders, whether in school, at home, or in the workplace.

 The Emerson STEM survey found high interest and high concern about the state of STEM education.

The Emerson STEM survey found high interest and high concern about the state of STEM education.

The crux of the issue

People are paying close attention to STEM education issues. The fourth annual Emerson survey on STEM education and awareness found over 40 percent of Americans believe a STEM worker shortage has reached “crisis” levels, with demand for STEM skills set only to increase. Yet only one-third felt teachers had the resources required to meet the need.

All the while, elementary educators are being asked to do more and more work in STEM learning. Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which include an explicit “engineering design” component, have been adopted in 19 states plus the District of Columbia. And 20 more states have adopted standards based on NGSS. Good as far as it goes, but teachers still need training in how to work within these new frameworks. At last check, about a dozen schools offered engineering as a part of teacher-training programs.

The time is right

People who argue that elementary-level learners are not ready for or in need of STEM education might not have spent much time with young children lately. Talia Milgrom-Elcott helped found 100Kin10, a nationwide effort to train 100,000 more STEM teachers by 2020. Arguing for early STEM education, she notes, “Kids obsessively ask questions, build things (and take them apart) and get down and dirty exploring – the same things that scientists, mathematicians and engineers need to do.” Starting STEM education early in children’s learning lives helps embed STEM habits of inquiry and – this is key – terminology in their minds, creating a favorable environment for later STEM lessons to take root.

 Change in the classroom takes a lot of time, one of the scarcest resources for elementary educators.

Change in the classroom takes a lot of time, one of the scarcest resources for elementary educators.

Challenges, tractable

For all the impetus behind elementary STEM education, the great challenge remains how to prepare and support teachers in a position to deliver it. Teachers currently in the classroom face an imposing set of challenges. One team of researchers identified the greatest challenges as, “access to appropriate resources, the overwhelming focus on English language arts and mathematics learning standards, and teacher preparedness to teach STEM curriculum.”

However, they also found that professional development, done effectively and sustainably, markedly improved teachers’ confidence in and capacity to deliver high-quality STEM education. It seems clear that elementary educators have all the ability required to meet STEM education needs; they need, however, the time, tools, and support to develop it.

Starting by design

The starting point for early STEM education almost always involves design or inquiry-based learning. Guided by the teacher, students identify a question or problem that has a solution they might implement or build. They brainstorm or research possible solutions, build and test prototypes, gather information from users to identify improvements, and then share the results with their classmates or school community.

The design process is STEM in essence; it’s the foundation of engineering and technology practice, and it deploys science and math learning to produce optimized solutions. From block play in nursery school to 5th-grade class pet habitat construction, the design process can lead students to answers in any problem-solving environment. It builds skills across many modalities:

  • Defining a problem to solve, especially a local one, fosters students’ agency and connection to their peers and community.

  • Group negotiations and discussions promote oral expressiveness, listening skills, and persuasiveness.

  • Researching problems and developing solutions can build content knowledge within the context of practical purpose – a ready answer to the, “When are we ever going to use this?” problem.

  • Producing their own solution to a problem is an act of innovation and creation, which can bring to light new abilities students and teachers might never have otherwise discovered.

Many places to start

 Our  Dream, Invent, Create  elementary engineering program is designed as a first step into the field for teachers with little or no training in the field. In English and bilingual versions.

Our Dream, Invent, Create elementary engineering program is designed as a first step into the field for teachers with little or no training in the field. In English and bilingual versions.

Resources for getting started are plentiful. Check out our own Dream, Invent, Create program, PBS Design Squad Educator Guides, the NSF-supported TeachEngineering.org, the bounty of resources under “Explore” on LinkEngineering.org, and whatever outreach and education programs might be available at the nearest university.

More formal professional development opportunities can depend on school or district parameters. Among common options are Engineering is Elementary, Engineering by Design, and Discovery Education. Whatever path educators choose, the most important piece is just getting going and keeping at it – the research says for teachers and students alike, the more they exercise their STEM teaching and learning brains, the bigger they get.

And, finally

How do you think elementary teachers are doing with STEM? What are good ways you might know for them to get started? We’re avid collectors of news on this front, so be in touch. And please share with any interested friends and colleagues.

 


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

Brand new for 2018! Our new Cybersecurity Career Guide shows middle and high schoolers what cybersecurity is all about and how they can find the career in the field that’s right for them. A great pair with the recently updated version of our Start Engineering Career Guide.

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Photos: Emerson survey, courtesy of Emerson; old-style teaching, courtesy of Scott McLeod.