Elisabeth McClure
Doug Clements
Lisa Guernsey
Susan Nall Bales
Jennifer Nichols
Nat Kendall-Taylor
Michael Levine
Publication Date

Winter 2017

"Research on the early childhood years has spotlighted how children's environments and interactions with adults are catalysts for their growth and development. This has prompted policy makers, practitioners, and researchers to ask how those years can be filled with opportunities for all children to explore, investigate, and see themselves as learners. It is even more critical to provide vibrant learning environments for children from underserved communities and in vulnerable families."

Offered in response to a growing scientific consensus about the importance of early science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning and concerns about barriers to its incorporation into early childhood education, this report is the culmination of an inquiry on the part of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The goal: to better understand the challenges to and opportunities in STEM learning as documented in a review of early childhood education research, policy, and practice and to encourage collaboration between sectors to implement and sustain needed changes. The report features research by the FrameWorks Institute on some common misconceptions around early STEM learning and explores how reframing the conversation can help the public overcome problematic ways of thinking, leading to a greater understanding of the importance of prioritising and investing in STEM learning opportunities for all children.

With a focus on the United States (US) context, the report is based on: interviews with policymakers, researchers, and teacher educators; focus groups with preschool and elementary school teachers; an analysis of research funding in the area; and a literature review on the latest research about early STEM learning. The initial findings were shared with leaders from policy, research, and education at a 2-day agenda-setting convening at New America, and their input was then incorporated into the report.

The approach is grounded in an ecological systems approach, on which it is understood that children grow and learn in a complex, intertwined web of relationships, experiences, and environments. The idea is that a full understanding of human development requires us to go beyond the simple one-to-one relationships between children and their immediate surroundings or caregivers. Figure 1 in the document shows a set of concentric circles, with the child at the centre. The first circle around the child is the microsystem, which includes home, classroom, child care or after-school programme, and church or other local community settings - and, of course, the people and experiences within those settings. The next circle is called the mesosystem, which acknowledges the relationships between the microsystem environments. For example, the ways that the child's schooling affects his or her home life and vice versa, directly or indirectly, or the ways that an adult's training and level of stress could affect that person's ability to make a positive impact on the child would be included in this system. The exosystem includes the societal structures and institutions that can directly or indirectly affect the child - for example, government policies and the research that spurs those policies. Finally, the outermost circle, called the macrosystem, consists of the cultural frames, paradigms, values, and models that shape the environment within which the child learns. The paper begins with a brief review of the research that demonstrates the ways in which STEM learning positively affects the child at the centre of all these systems. Then, it moves outward, through each of the ecological systems, laying out the ways in which our current structures foster or limit STEM learning during early childhood.

In brief, the report finds that children demonstrate a clear readiness to engage in STEM learning early in life. Just as with language and literacy, it is argued here that STEM education should start early in order to maximise its benefits and effectiveness.

  • Both parents and teachers appear to be enthusiastic and capable of supporting early STEM learning; however, they require additional knowledge and support to do so effectively.
  • Teachers in early childhood environments need more robust training and professional development to effectively engage young children in developmentally appropriate STEM learning.
  • Parents and technology can help connect school, home, and other learning environments like libraries and museums to support early STEM learning.
  • Research and public policies play a critical role in the presence and quality of STEM learning in young children's lives, and both benefit from sustained dialogue with one another and with teachers in the classroom.
  • An empirically tested, strategic communications effort is needed to convey an accurate understanding of developmental science to the public, leading to support for meaningful policy change around early STEM learning. For instance, the public holds misconceptions about STEM learning (e.g., it is for older students; children should learn other topics first; it is only important for those who especially excel in these areas; and STEM and other learning topics must be taught separately). When communicators do not carefully frame their messages, they can inadvertently activate and strengthen these misconceptions. Furthermore, the use of research-tested messages about early STEM learning makes a real difference in the public's support for early STEM learning.

The report offers 6 recommendations based on these observations:

  1. Engage parents: Support parent confidence and efficacy as their children's STEM guides. It is suggested that  educators, advocates, and researchers reach out to parents about early STEM learning where they are in engaging ways, through for example, blogs, child care centres, paediatricians, and parenting magazines. Policymakers, community leaders, and media producers could use mobile technology to make comprehensive, long-term training on early parental STEM support more accessible to more parents. Communicators should emphasise what early STEM learning actually looks like, providing a variety of approachable examples (e.g., participating in a community garden) that make it clear that STEM can happen anytime, anywhere, even with minimal resources.
  2. Improve training and institutional support for teaching early STEM. For example, "preparation and training programs should be designed to allow teachers to experience STEM learning in the same ways that the children will. Teacher education should be driven by curiosity, should allow for tinkering and exploration, and should help teachers weave a holistic understanding of the topic areas so they can empathize and model this learning for their students.... Researchers should disseminate findings in formats accessible to teachers, addressing teacher concerns..."
  3. Support and expand the web of STEM learning opportunities available to children. The report calls on leaders in museums, libraries, and community organisations to prioritise early STEM in informal learning environments. "Exhibits and interactive features should engage children, and also provide direct instruction to parents on how to engage with their children around STEM features and continue their learning beyond that environment." Furthermore, education and technology leaders should ensure digital equity by providing access to high-speed internet, and media officials should undertake projects that build public interest in early STEM and form a bridge for home-school learning connections.
  4. Transform early childhood education: Build a sustainable and aligned system of high-quality early learning from birth through age 8. One suggestion is to pay special attention to professional preparation, staff development, and continuing education.
  5. Improve the way early STEM research is funded and conducted. Recommendations are offered for particular stakeholders, such as: "Leaders at the federal and state levels should take stock of what research is being funded on early STEM learning across agencies and research organizations, in order to identify knowledge gaps and form the basis for a government-wide strategy to support early STEM learning research and development."
  6. "Across all these recommended actions, use insights from communications science to build public will for and understanding of early STEM learning." Suggestions are offered in a one-page guide indicating how stakeholders and advocates of early STEM, across all the child's environments, can draw on communications science to ensure they do not activate negative pre-existing cultural attitudes about early STEM (e.g., the misconception that not every child can learn STEM subjects; nor do they need to). National, state, and local leaders are encouraged to convene multi-sector summits on the future of early learning and STEM to build awareness and maintain a cohesive action plan across stakeholders.

Joan Ganz Cooney Center website, and "Sowing the Seeds for Successful STEM Learning in Early Childhood", by Elisabeth McClure, February 2 2017 - both accessed on February 16 2017.