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The Roots of STEM Success

April 18, 2018

The Importance of Sharing Early STEM Experiences with Children Ages 0-10

By Elizabeth Rood, Center for Childhood Creativity

Developmental psychologists used to believe that young children were not capable of the kind of complex thinking needed to understand science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts. Modern research conducted with children as young as a few months old has debunked that understanding. We now know that infants naturally reason about cause and effect and probability, among other complex STEM thinking skills. Introducing STEM concepts to children in their first decade of life is necessary if we hope for those children to reach their full potential in the future.

Yet, formal education rarely provides our youngest learners with robust STEM experiences. It is necessary, therefore, for informal learning spaces like museums and community-based organizations to supplement children’s educational experiences with developmentally-appropriate, hands-on STEM learning.

In order to understand how best to introduce STEM concepts to children ages 0-10, experts from the Center for Childhood Creativity (CCC) at the Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM) conducted a review of more than 150 empirical studies. This research review led them to six key findings, which are detailed in the CCC’s latest position paper, The Roots of STEM Success: Changing Early Learning Experiences to Build Lifelong Thinking Skills, published in February 2018.

The impetus for this project was the recognition that the teaching and learning of STEM concepts has become a national priority. Informal and formal educators are all being charged with raising children who are prepared to compete and succeed in a rapidly-evolving, technologically-driven workforce. STEM is all around us and its impact can be felt in every industry and across all aspects of modern life. Research indicates that starting early—developing children’s natural tendencies to test hypotheses and reason about the phenomena they observe and experience—is the key to providing children with the underlying skills needed for long-term success.

Children’s earliest learning experiences lay the foundation for their lifelong critical thinking skills and shape their approach to learning. Success in STEM fields relies not only on a mastery of content, but also on a child’s learning mindset; their confidence in facing challenges; and their disposition toward curiosity, inquiry, and analysis.

One challenge lies in how to re-evaluate formal and informal education systems—as well as at-home learning opportunities—so that they can best support our youngest learners to build STEM knowledge.

The Roots of STEM Success shares six research-backed findings to address this issue:

  1. STEM Thinking Begins in Infancy: Counter to long-held assumptions about babies and toddlers’ cognitive capacity, we now know that STEM thinking starts in infancy. Even before a child’s first birthday, she is capable of making inferences, drawing conclusions about cause and effect, and reasoning about the probability of events.

  2. To Become Strong STEM Thinkers, Children Need More Play: Play is not frivolity and fluff; it is the brain’s wired-in process for learning. Through play of all sorts—from building to board games, from make-believe to magic tricks—children are testing theories about how the world works and developing the brain plasticity for lifelong learning.

  3. STEM Amplifies Language Development; Language Enables STEM Thinking: As children engage in STEM experiences, they hear and practice new words. Growing vocabularies allow children to make sense of increasingly complex ideas and phenomena, and early exposure to vocabulary used for concepts can support children later on to master higher order thinking.

  4. Active, Self-Directed Learning Builds STEM Skills and Interest: Hands-on STEM learning is not only more fun, it is also more effective at helping children make sense of information that is complex or abstract. Museums and community-based organizations complement children’s in-school STEM education by providing families with guided, hands-on learning and by giving children the opportunity to self-direct exploration and inquiry, which correlates to long-term interest in STEM.

  5. Mindset Matters to STEM Success: Developing what psychologists call a “growth” mindset—believing that learning and improvement will follow hard work and intentional effort—is particularly important in STEM learning, especially as children move from early to middle childhood.

  6. Children’s Abstract Thinking Potential can be Unlocked Through Both Adult Support and Executive Function Skill Development: Modern research debunks the myth that children are concrete thinkers, only capable of making sense of what they can directly see and experience. Instead, we now understand that children can grapple with abstract ideas and phenomena, when challenged and supported to do so.

An additional challenge comes from the lack of confidence many parents and caregivers experience when considering how to share STEM with their children. Most adults would never tell a child that they are poor readers; these same adults—who children naturally view as authority figures—are quick to admit that they aren’t good at math or science.

To combat this, The Roots of STEM Success also shares practical tips that parents, caregivers, and other informal educators can rely on when introducing STEM concepts to young learners, or when trying to transform daily activities into STEM experiences.

Looking forward, the CCC will continue its work to reach and support formal and informal educators, so that more STEM experiences are shared with children during the critical first decade of life. This will be accomplished by continuing to leverage the CCC’s relationship with BADM, as well as through additional research and publications.

As the world changes and the economy demands more STEM-based thinking and understanding, we need to reevaluate how we are preparing our children for their future. As The Roots of STEM Success details, the definition of STEM education will have to expand: to recognize learning spaces other than traditional classrooms, and to include our youngest learners from their first years of life.

Read The Roots of STEM Success: Changing Early Learning Experiences to Build Lifelong Thinking Skills in its entirety here.  

The research conducted in support of The Roots of STEM Success was made possible by the generous support of the Thomas P. Murphy Fund at the San Diego Foundation.