Enhancing STEM in PreK-3 Education by Kevin Anderson

In September of 2019, Education Commission of the States (ECS) brought together a group of experts in early childhood and/or STEM education to discuss policies and actions a state might implement to support STEM programming for preschool through third grade. The ensuing report from this meeting, Enhancing STEM in P-3 Education, focuses primarily on state and regional policy, but there are implications for STEM leadership more broadly, particularly at the school district level.

Societal trends and research-based understanding suggest a need for this report. Young children particularly benefit from an integrated approach to learning that centers on curiosity and play, which better aligns with their developmental needs. Whether it is a focus on play or academics, learning in pre-K programs often does not align well to K-3 programs due to communication challenges. Further, educators’ plates and program time burst at the seams. Where is there time for STEM? This report notes integration of disciplines around future-ready skills as the goal, rather than adding yet another thing. With stagnant achievement results across multiple measures, it is debatable whether current practices of putting more and more time into a couple of isolated academic areas makes sense.

Notably, research questions remain in the field of STEM education. This report draws on key research across child development and STEM, but as noted in the 2014 NRC report, STEM Integration in K-12 Education: Status, Prospects, and an Agenda for Research, further research needs to be done.

The findings of the report fall into four main categories: equity, equality, and access; state and regional coordination; educator preparation and professional learning; and, curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Clearly, not all students have equitable access to STEM programming in their early years. In some cases anything science- and STEM-related take a back seat to canned literacy and mathematics learning. Because early experiences help build identity and self-efficacy in STEM areas, unequal early access results in unequal later outcomes. When states or other groups offer STEM grants, they should consider support for early childhood programs and include equity in the criteria and action plan to incentivize this focus.

Leading effective STEM education efforts requires a coherent vision and definition of this work. A statewide definition for early STEM education supports a clear vision and strategic plan. Coordination between specific state and regional leadership bodies can make for a unified, consistent, and thus more effective effort.

Educator preparation programs, particularly for early childhood and preschool educators, do not typically include any learning around integrated STEM. Further, these programs do not always support career progressions for these educators; stackable credentials that allow for flexible career growth over time could increase the local talent pool. In an era of generic initiatives and packaged curricular products focusing on solitary subjects, professional learning for practicing educators also needs to emphasize support for integration.

Examples support this complex work. State-developed tools could provide local entities with detailed case studies of program development pathways, including bumps and successes. Local connections are also critical within STEM assessments and projects, where student and community relevance also enhances equity and cultural sustaining practice.

Suggestions from this report have district and school implications and include focusing on:

  • Coherence, namely in language and with a PK-12 STEM strategic plan;
  • STEM for all students, not only within pull-out programs, electives, or only after school
  • Professional learning for transdisciplinary approaches from PK-12, emphasizing the authentic and local;
  • Developmentally appropriate P-3 engagement, such as play, wonder, and exploration-based learning across disciplines; and,
  • Stackable credentialing that allows for “grow-your-own” professional educators within a district.

Kevin Anderson is the science education consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Follow him on Twitter at @wisDPIscience. #stemforall 

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