Andrea Miller & Eryn Watson
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Today, being “tech savvy” is a key part of survival for the 21st century. STEM/STEAM in the early childhood classroom has been a new topic of interest in the educational field when trying to get our students ready for 21st century careers. It is likely that if we as educators do not implement the skills embedded in STEAM activities into our daily routines our students will not be ready for 21st century careers. The effectiveness of implementing STEAM into our daily classroom routines will make our students more proficient in those subject areas, will likely increase the number of women in the work-field areas of STEAM, will increase the overall numbers of Americans in STEAM related careers, and keep us competitive in the 21st century global economy. The following literature review covers current definition of Stem/Steam, STEAM in the early childhood classroom, the competitive battle, and underrepresented females.
Hom (2014) defines STEM as a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - in an interdisciplinary and applied approach. Rather than teach the four disciplines as separate and discrete subjects, STEM integrates them into a cohesive learning paradigm based on real-world applications. Sneideman (2013) says he likes to think of STEM as much more than an acronym. STEM really is a philosophy. STEM is a way of thinking about how educators at all levels -including parents- should be helping students integrate knowledge across disciplines, encouraging them to think in a more connected and holistic way.
According to Riley (2014) “STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. The end results are students who take thoughtful risks, engage in experiential learning, persist in problem-solving, embrace collaboration, and work through the creative process. These are the innovators, educators, leaders, and learners of the 21st century!” Mason & Harris (2016) note with the addition of “art” the potential to stimulate the creativity of youth, preparing them for jobs where innovation and invention is key, is multiplied. With STEAM, students have opportunities to explore, investigate, pursue their curiosities, and draw conclusions about: how things work, how to build or develop, and how to improve their designs. STEAM also provides an excellent way to engage young children in learning and to help them express their understanding in creative ways. In a blog post from 2015 School Specialty noted that the importance of engineering is simple: there will be times throughout anyone’s life where they will have to make things work. They might be concrete, like tools and materials, or they may be more abstract. In terms of problem solving, engineering might be the most valuable of the STEAM subjects.
STEAM in the early childhood classroom
According to a blog post from 2016, Curiosityville states that there is an exciting and powerful link between STEAM and early childhood. New research on brain development has shown that the brain is particularly receptive to learning math and logic between the ages of 1 and 4. STEAM skills are as important as learning letters, sounds, colors, shapes, and numbers for school readiness. Sneideman (2013) explains that the most important thing to remember about teaching STEM to early learners is that they are perfectly adapted to learn STEM concepts, and it is not difficult to teach STEM to young children. The secret is to tap into their natural and innate curiosity about the living world. By simply allowing them to investigate, by encouraging them to ask questions about the real world, you are engaging children in STEM. Hom (2014) states that in elementary schools STEM education focuses on the introductory level STEM courses, as well as awareness of STEM fields and occupations. This initial step provides standards-based structured inquiry-based and real world problem-based learning, connecting all four of the STEM subjects. The goal is to pique students’ interest into them wanting to pursue the courses, not because they have to. There is also an emphasis placed on bridging in-school and out-of-school STEM learning opportunities. Katz (2010) provides an instructive reminder of the way to implement art with STEM. “In our preschool and kindergarten practices we are not caught between formal academic lessons or cutting and pasting ‘refrigerator art’ activities.” While these have their places, they are often over utilized to the detriment of structuring art in ways that allow students to display their understanding or creative interpretation of what they have observed or what they are thinking.
According to Mason & Harris (2016) STEAM and early childhood approaches are complementary. STEAM in the early childhood classrooms are supported by many organizations that involve children and the subject areas STEAM addresses. The National Association of Science Teachers, for example, references the National Resource Center in a recent position statement on Early Childhood Science Education: “Current research indicates that the young children have the capacity for constructing conceptual learning and learning the practice of reasoning and inquiry”. Mason & Harris (2016) mentioned perhaps one reason it has taken a few years for STEAM to reach the early childhood level is that many adults, including educators, underestimate the skills, abilities, and potential of young children. We suggest that educators keep the prowess of these young children in mind as they plan early childhood STEAM lessons. In the blog post (2017) Gardner School noted schools and educators who incorporates STEAM education are shaping the everyday experiences for today’s children, preparing them to be excellent problem-solvers, creative collaborators, and thoughtful risk-takers.
Americans falling behind compared to other countries
According to Hill, Corbett, & Rose, (2010) science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are widely regarded as critical to the national economy. Concern about America’s ability to be competitive in the global economy has led to a number of calls to action to strengthen these fields. Kuenzl (2008) explains that the concern is that the United States is not preparing a sufficient number of students, teachers, and practitioners in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A large majority of our secondary school students fail to reach proficiency in math and science, and many are taught by teachers lacking adequate subject matter knowledge. When compared to other nations, the math and science achievement of U.S. pupils and the rate of STEM degree attainment are inconsistent with a nation considered the world leader in scientific innovation. Early Childhood Development (2017) states when looking at the future job market and considering the types of roles our future workforce will need to fill, STEAM education is of extreme value. Hill, Corbett, & Rose, (2010) add that the workforce projections for 2018 by the U.S. Department of Labor show that nine of the 10 fastest-growing occupations that require at least a bachelor’s degree will require a significant amount of scientific or mathematical training. Students from historically disadvantaged groups such as African American and Hispanic students, both female and male, are less likely to have access to advanced courses in math and science in high school, which negatively affects their ability to enter and successfully complete STEM majors in college.
Females underrepresented in the field of math, science, and technology
Hill, Corbett, & Rose, (2010) state that many of the science and engineering occupations are predicted to grow faster than the average rate for all occupations, and some of the largest increases will be in engineering-and computer-related fields- fields in which women currently hold one-quarter or fewer positions. Attracting and retaining more women in the STEAM workforce will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. Engineers design many of the things we use daily- buildings, bridges, computers, cars, wheelchairs and X-ray machines. When women are not being involved in the design of these products, needs and desires unique to women may be overlooked. Camera (2015) explains women are underrepresented in STEM fields, but current females in the industry are working to change that. Sarah Richardson is a postdoctoral fellow in synthetic biology at the University of California-Berkeley who devotes a significant amount of time volunteering in schools with large numbers of minority and low-income students in the Oakland, California, area.“The first thing they always say to me is, ‘You don’t look like a scientist” relayed Richardson, a light-skinned African-American woman with a halo of curls cropped close to her face.“At first I thought it was funny,” she said. “But it stopped being funny when I realized my career was suffering because my colleagues also thought I didn’t look like a scientist.” Richardson is one of five women in the midst of their postdoctoral fellowships who convened at the White House to talk about the barriers they face as females in the science, engineering, math and technology, or STEM, fields. The program aims to encourage more young women to pursue STEM in a field where they remain underrepresented.
Because of the factors stated above and its possibilities we need to start implementing STEAM into our early childhood classrooms. Our classrooms need to provide the environment that allows students to enjoy their learning and get excited to have choice, ownership, and voice while engaging in authentic learning. Sneideman (2013) explains that our knowledge of how people learn has grown substantially over the last few decades. We now understand that success in learning requires the learner to be at the center of the experience, making connections across disciplines and also across contextual settings. Children need to be presented opportunities to learn the same material in different settings and through different lenses. The traditional approach of teaching topics in isolation does not support the ways that children learn best.
If we want to stay competitive in the global economy then we need to start focusing on STEAM activities by getting students attracted and interested in these subjects at an early age when curiosity is embedded in a child. Langdon, McKittrick, Beede, Khan,& Doms (2011) add, the greatest advancement in our society from medicine to mechanics have come from the minds of those interested in or studied in the areas of STEM. Although still relatively small in number, the STEM workforce has an outsized impact on a nation’s competitiveness, economic growth, and overall standard of living. STEM jobs are the jobs of the future. They are essential for developing our technological innovation and global competitiveness. Sneideman (2013) feels that we need to work together to change the status quo for our nation’s children. If the leading thinkers on education believe that our hopes for a vibrant democracy hinge upon a foundation of STEM education, then we need to be encouraging best practices in STEM from the get-go. One of the best practices in teaching and learning is to make learning relevant, and there is nothing more relevant than being outside and exploring the world we live in. Let’s not wait another day to take young children outside to start engaging them in STEM education.
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