An ECSTEM conference experience

An early childhood education conference is an opportunity to meet others who share a passion for improving our science teaching practice, meet our education mentors and gain new insights into why certain educational practices are effective. It’s a privilege to be able to attend, and fun to experience. It’s also a time to hear about new research that can guide us to achieve our goals of starting all children on the path to scientific literacy. Our local -AEYC and other professional organizations offer this kind of learning experience in smaller bites, and wider geographic locations. 

The Early Childhood Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (ECSTEM) conference hosted by The Children’s Center at CalTech for the fifth year, joined by THINK Together, brought together educators from 26 states and 5 countries as well as many, many more local California residents. The theme of “Curiosity” inspired presenters and promoted discussion. I felt fully in that happy place where early childhood education and science education overlap, so please join me as I reflect on the experience. Listen to what this Florida educator from the Osceola Center for Early Learning in the Osceola County School District has to say about her conference experience (we continued our conference networking while at the airport on the way home.)


I heard many times that the quality of the sessions met participants needs, and the venue, food, level of organization, and friendliness of the community made everything else a positive experience. With so many interesting session descriptions it was hard to choose among them. 

Arriving at the conference, an exhibit too!

Susan Wood greets Beth Van Meeteren

Susan Wood greets presenter Dr. Beth Van Meeteren

Poster from the exhibit

Hawkins’ Centers of Learning exhibit: “Cultivate the Scientist in Every Child: The Philosophy of Frances and David Hawkins”

At registration we were greeted by CCC Director and conference founder, Susan Wood, who engaged us with the Hawkins’ Centers of Learning exhibit, “Cultivate the Scientist in Every Child: The Philosophy of Frances and David Hawkins.” The panels illuminated the ideas of “eolithism,” “messing about,” “I, Thou, It,” and “Teacher as Learner.” The table of rocks gave us materials to mess about, a satisfying way to experience messing about and also wonder in a scientific way. We later heard more about these ideas from Alex CruickshankList of conference sponsors, Community Outreach Specialist of the Boulder Journey School.

As an early childhood educator I am very familiar with looking for funding to create opportunities to learn and appreciate how sponsors make these opportunities possible!

Getting our geek on: astrophysics with humor, and down-to-earth design

Konstantin Batygin, Assistant Professor of Planetary ScienceWith humor, and tempered with his experiences as a parent of a preschooler, keynote speaker Konstantin Batygin, Assistant Professor of Planetary Science, bought us into his investigations into what the long-period orbits of objects within the Kuiper belt suggest about the existence of a yet-unseen Planet Nine within the Solar System. We science nerds got our geek on with the keynote address and sessions that challenged us to link our imaginative play space scenarios with problem-solving challenges geared for our adult fine-motor skills and prior experiences while learning how to support children in developmentally appropriate challenges as they follow their own interests. Inspired by the robots of NASA’s space explorations and presenter Carrie Lynn Draper takes photos of astrophysicistRobotic arm designed in an activity for adults.Carrie Lynn Draper of Readiness Learning Associates, we built mechanical arms with hands to move objects—children might decide they need to build a long tool to retrieve objects from beneath bookcases. 
Making a model and engineering design are part of the Next Generation Science Standards for K-12, and part of even younger children’s experiences.

Experiencing learning: Friday sessions

I love the way we early childhood educators—college professors, preschool teachers, museum educators, preservice teachers, and all—join together in a common learning mode as we participate in conference sessions. Discovery Cube educators gave us challenges to explore boat structure, floating and sinking, and the force of moving air as we manipulated common materials and built together. As you watch this video and consider how to extend this investigation, predict how many marbles this teacher’s boat design might hold!

Do you love using the slo-mo feature on phone cameras to see details of motion that are missed in real time video? Does this technology help young children analyze motion of objects they are investigating? What direction might this investigation go in? (Tip of the hat to Joe Robinson, educator of young children.)


Empowering children to identify problems that are important to them, explore their environment, analyze what they observe, discuss their ideas with peers and adults and document their understanding was the message throughout the conference sessions.

Cas Holman holding a piece of the Rigamajig building toy.After seeing the Rigamajig system in use by Kindergartners at The Willows School where they created models of their human bodies, I was especially interested in attending the session, “Designing for Children to Design: Creativity in STE(A)M Learning” by the designer of the system, Cas Holman of the Rhode Island School of Design. Hearing about her design processes, and how she collaborates with others made me reflect on how there is no one Design Process for children. Food for thought from her website: “When a toy gives the story, the good part is done.” “The moments that I see things [happening] I wouldn’t have thought of, that’s when I know it’s [toy] successful… Kids are inventing things I didn’t think of. I didn’t design it to do that but they made it do that so, woo-hoo, it’s working!” In addition to explaining how children love to build bigger than themselves and can build without adult instruction, she introduced us to the early childhood curriculum Anjiplay, developed by educator Cheng Xueqin and in practice the Anji region in China, where children design their play area each day by setting up the provided materials. (This short description doesn’t do it justice-see the webpage and videos.)

Book signing event: a time to connect

Karen Worth signs a copy of her book, Discovering Nature, for an early childhood educator.This conference left me feeling inspired by getting to learn more from people whose work mentored me and being affirmed by people who said they use my work. At a book signing event I was able to talk with another presenter, family childcare provider Raissa Lee who is the center owner and director of ABC Mom Learning Center & Childcare. It was exciting to learn that she uses my book, Science Is Simple (Gryphon House 2003) in her practice. We had a conversation about our growth as educators, learning about how to take our science teaching from a single activity into science inquiry from teacher-educator-researchers whose work has guided us. They were also presenting at the conference: Karen Worth, Beth Van Meeteren and Ellen Hall! I introduced Raissa to Karen and her books which continue to be my references. Other people also found it meaningful to connect directly with the thinkers and authors, like Chip Donohue, whose work guides theirs.

Additional conversations with early childhood educators from as far as Hawai’i, China and Saudi Arabia, who teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics to preservice teachers revealed how the work of researchers and writers support young children across the world. It feels good to be working in concert with so many others.

Saturday morning panel discussion (with links to their work)

Five people in chairs for the panel discussion.On Saturday morning I was honored to be part of a panel providing another opportunity for learning and dialog. Before we answered questions I told the story of how a combination of technology tools—a program shown on television and a stick—allowed one child to view, manipulate, and understand a spatial relationship between floating “plates” of ice.

Dr. Chip Donohue, Dean at the Erikson Institute and Director of the TEC Center, spoke about the policy report by the Early Childhood STEM Working Group, “Early STEM Matters: Providing High-Quality STEM Experiences for All Young Learners,” one of two excellent reports that came out this year. Speaking to the packed room of early childhood educators he said, “We are all media mentors and we all have a responsibility to help parents navigate the digital age.” Donohue also emphasized that as much as children are natural scientists and naturally curious, they need the adults in their life to help them grow that disposition. The report will help us be these vital roles in STEM education. Early childhood educators will be delighted to see that in the recommendations, the report calls for us to have “access to and support for implementing existing and newly-developed high-quality [STEM] resources.” We know we need professional development and financial support to implement quality science and engineering practices. It is a must-read, and must-share with our administrators, parents, and legislators! Donohue also recommended we read and use the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “Media and Children Communication Toolkit” which includes their policy statement, “Media and Young Minds.”

Dr. Elisabeth McClure, Research Fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop introduced us to the Cooney Center publication she co-authored, “STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood.” This report, also a must-read must-share, is the culmination of an exploratory project by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America, funded by the National Science Foundation, to “better understand the challenges to and opportunities in STEM learning as documented in a review of early childhood education research, policy, and practice”, make recommendations, and encourage collaboration to implement and sustain needed changes. The report is a call that, to “support the future of our nation, the seeds of STEM must be planted early, along with and in support of the seeds of literacy. Together, these mutually enhancing, interwoven strands of learning will grow well-informed, critical citizens prepared for a digital tomorrow.” McClure related report findings, including, “Both parents and teachers need additional knowledge and support to encourage their [STEM] interests and support the children effectively.” Teacher instruction must be on-going and connect these three strands in meaningful ways: STEM content, training in children’s developmental learning progressions in STEM, and well-modeled and practiced pedagogy. McClure expands on this, saying, “Teacher educators should model best teaching practices for teachers in the classroom, rather than just telling teachers about these practices. If they’re educating teachers about hands-on activities and small group work, they should educate teachers about them while using these techniques themselves. By modeling best practices, teacher educators can help teachers remember these teaching practices and also allow them to empathize with the student experience of these methods. Teachers need many opportunities to practice these teaching methods prior to beginning their teaching service, with supervision and positive feedback, and in real classrooms. We cannot expect teachers to know how to use these methods effectively and adapt them to the real and ever-changing circumstances in the classroom if they haven’t had many many opportunities to practice them.”
I really related to her additional summary of parts of the report: “Teachers need to experience this learning in ways that we hope children will. It should be joyful, it should be engaging, inspired by curiosity, and wonder, it should offer tinkering and exploration. Ultimately it should help teachers weave a holistic understanding of the topic areas.” Because research and policy are critical to the discussion of STEM learning in the early years, the report calls for practitioners to be involved in the research as early as the design phase. See the findings and recommendations, as well as the section by Frameworks Institute, “How Reframing Research can Enhance STEM Support.”

Susan Nall Bales, Founder, Board Chair, and Senior Advisor of the Frameworks Institute, showed us the importance of using a good story to advocate for early STEM learning. The Frameworks Institute studies how people think about complex socio-political and scientific issues. Her work provides insight into the challenges of communicating about STEM education and the kinds of tools we can use to get our message across. “Making the Case for STEM Learning,” the Frameworks Institute’s free course on communicating more effectively about the importance of high-quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, is available online. This course “gives communicators the tools they need to show the need for expanding innovative, and engaging, hands-on learning that will equip the leaders of tomorrow to face the challenges that await.”

Sessions on STEM education

The discussions continued during Saturday sessions. In “Understanding Change and Growth Over Time,” The Children’s Center at CalTech teachers Olivia Garcia and Gretchen Kammerer answered queries on including children’s questions about death into life cycle explorations. They recommend reading I Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, and the Knuffle Bunny series by Mo Williams. In their exploration of growth their class that year did “a lot of tiny little plantings because they really liked exploring seeds.”

Karen Worth presenting at ECSTEM conference.I have been inspired and challenged to deepen my science teaching by the work of Karen Worth and Ingrid Chalufour, using works they co-authored, Worms, Shadows and Whirlpools, and The Young Scientist series. So I was delighted to be able to participate in Worth’s session, “A Look at the Work of Frances and David Hawkins.” We learned about the Hawkins’ approach, “eolithism,” “messing about,” “I, Thou, and It,” and “Teacher as Learner.” The conference theme of ‘Curiosity’ reflects one of the Hawkins’ central tenets, that “children learn most deeply when they are following their natural curiosities.” We experienced learning about various objects in ways that we hope children will, and were joyful, engaged, inspired by curiosity, and we wondered as we discussed the scientific concepts we encountered in our exploration of the objects.

My last session of the conference was the one I presented with Children’s Center at CalTech teacher Evelyn Sussman, “Utilizing Free Resources,” in which we shared how to find free resources online:
Websites such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) (including this Early Years blog) and their state and local affiliates; the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS); public libraries; and the publications from the National Academies Press; and From the reycling bin, such as: Clear plastic egg cartons, Clear plastic bottles, Plastic milk jugs, Yogurt containers and lids, Baby food boxes, Seed catalogues, and Corks, and From nature, such as: Milkweed seeds, Magnolia leaves, Twigs, Acorns, Rocks, Soil, Clay, and Water. I am grateful to Evelyn for stepping up to share her teaching practice in her first-ever presentation.

Exhibit “Hall of Inquiry”

Exhibitors in the “Hall of Inquiry” loaned materials for the Children’s Center at CalTech teachers’ “Model Outdoor Teaching Lab,” a welcoming model space for children to effectively engage in science, engineering, and mathematics learning while using technology.

See you next year?

The joy of teaching and the excitement of discovery and exploration were in the hands and faces of every person at the conference as we listened, learned, collaborated and networked. Yes, see you next year!

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5 Responses to An ECSTEM conference experience

  1. Cindy Hoisington says:

    Wow what an amazing and inspiring experience and you wrote about it in a way that made me.feel like I was there!

  2. Marie Faust Evitt says:

    WOW, indeed!! Thank you for your thorough report, Peggy. So much exciting work and important work is happening!!

  3. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Thank you, Cindy and Marie, I am still feeling the “wow” as I process the experience and find the ways it connects with my work with children and their teachers.

  4. Carrie Lynne Draper says:

    Peggy, we are grateful for you, being a part of this awesome conference and look forward to seeing you in a few weeks at NSTA’s National Conference on Science Education where we can continue the Early Childhood STEM conversation!

  5. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    Carrie, I will see you at #NSTA17! I’m looking forward to taking in more science and STEM education professional development and presenting on early childhood science education.
    See you at the Elementary Extravaganza
    Friday, March 31 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM
    Los Angeles Convention Center, West Hall B-1
    and at my NSTA Press® Session: Bringing the S-T-E-M Together in Early Childhood Using Science and Engineering Practices
    Saturday, April 1 12:30 PM – 1:30 PM
    Los Angeles Convention Center, Kentia Hall D
    and book signing 2:30 – 3:00 pm on Saturday in the NSTA store.

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