The Role of Elementary Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in Future Success
Integrating STEM at the elementary level shall become a paramount if we are to see an increase in future STEM careers. It is in elementary schools that students form their life-long attitudes about their interest and ability in science, which is why the STEM experiences in elementary need to build strong scientific foundation, constructive approach of guided inquiry, and love of exploration and learning. Yet, the implementation of STEM curriculum will encounter major obstacles due to standardized testing and greater emphasis on math and english, time constraints, and the lack of professional development available to teachers due to budget cuts and/or organizational issues. As noted by Al Byers, Ph.D., Associate Executive Director at the NSTA, 1.6 million elementary teachers don’t feel well prepared to teach science at the elementary level. Having only taken a couple of science classes during their undergraduate years, teachers are prone to shy away from teaching science, spend small amount of time on science, or perpetuate student misconceptions that are hard to overcome in higher grades. At the same time, teacher preparedness and ability in teaching science is the single more important variable when it comes to effective science instruction.
Thankfully, there is a number of valuable resources available to aid in STEM implementation at the elementary level. Dr. Sally Moomaw, wrote “Teaching STEM in the Early Years: Activities for Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” in which teachers can find a wealth of activities that students find engaging and educational.
Dr. Sally Moomaw was kind enough to answer a number of questions pertaining to her work, book and STEM education/implementation.
Here is the interview:
1. During early childhood children begin to love and immerse themselves in science. From building blocks to catching bugs. The world is a great new place during the early childhood. Yet, once children enter the formal schooling, the science pushed to the side for the language and math test prep. How can STEM change this?
I honestly believe that the constant test prep is destroying a love of learning in all subject areas, and educators have to become vocal about changing this environment. That said, you are quite correct that science has been pushed to the background. I am glad that the National Science Teachers Association is now embracing early childhood science education through a joint position statement with NAEYC. Mathematics and science are intricately connected, and measurement is one of the required content areas for primary math. What better way to construct concepts of measurement of length than through observations of plant growth? Measurement of volume, weight, and time lead directly to important concepts in physics. Children can explore all three of these concepts while experimenting with physical knowledge materials such as inclines and pendulums. This type of curriculum makes the mathematics relevant and interesting while also engaging students in the exploration and excitement of science.
2. Is there a potential for STEM to be implemented into every elementary classroom?Of course. STEM should be implemented in every elementary classroom. The materials needed for inclines, pendulums, pulleys, and so forth are not expensive. Teachers can easily assemble and make the apparatus for these activities. What would be helpful is for teachers at elementary schools to put their heads together and generate ideas for connecting the STEM math and science concepts throughout the various grades. For example, first graders can experiment with inclines of with various slopes and determine how the slope affects velocity and the distance a object moves. They can take measurements of distance and draw important conclusions. In second grade, children may be ready to do similar experiments while also timing the movement of the objects, and by 3rd grade students may be able to determine the elements that would go into a formula to determine the relationship between slope, velocity, and distance. But this is just one example. Teachers can explore similar learning trajectories in life science and earth and space science.
3. How important is STEM in early education?
STEM is very important in early education because it interfaces with all curriculum areas. Students who explore science and geometry through building with blocks and other media may develop an interest in engineering that leads to a lifelong career. Unfortunately, many students progress through school without ever realizing the excitement of lifelong engagement with math and science. Instead, they decide these subjects are boring or incomprehensible. “Who cares?” many may say. This has ramifications for the students themselves and our society as a whole. Much has been said about the declining number of students going onto STEM disciplines and how this affects the development and future of the country. I am more concerned with the failed potential of students who have never known a mathematician, a computer engineer, or a scientific researcher or educator. These are fields with vast potential to change individual lives. We fail our students when we don’t give them adequate time to explore and learn within the STEM disciplines in the early years when the foundational concepts in these areas are easily formed.
4. You noted the importance for teacher’s scaffolding to the development of children’s thinking, as well as, the reluctance of teachers to engage in extended discussion to clear up misconceptions and guide discussion. What would you say are the most effective ways to ensure that the zone of proximal development and scaffolding take place in the classroom? Rather than setting immediate performance expectations, teachers need to instead carefully observe the quality of the responses of their students. There seems to be a rush to have all students acquire the same knowledge at the same time. Obviously we want to set high expectations for all students, but some students require more time to develop conceptual understanding in particular areas than others. Allowing students to discuss mathematical problems or conduct scientific experiments or observations within a small-group structure can be helpful. More knowledgeable students can provide excellent scaffolding for peers because they are close to their peers’ zone of proximal development and may be more likely to understand the sources of confusion that other students may have. When teachers allow students to think on their own and express their ideas, even if they are incorrect, teachers can become skillful at providing just enough information or just the right kind of question to move learning forward. It is important to remember that errors are a window into the student’s thinking, or as Kamii says, students make errors because they are thinking.
5. How can we ensure that “intentional teaching” takes place in the classroom? As a nation that experiences high teacher turn-over due to low-pay and high stress of teaching profession, we often have inexperienced teachers in the classroom. Even though, we all started at one point, it would be fair to say that intentional teaching is a skill developed after years of teaching and working with children. A number of teaching skills can solely be acquired through real working experience.
How can we ensure that a new teacher is able to provide “intentional teaching” through the adequately planned curriculum? I have several thoughts about this. First and foremost, as a profession education needs to regain control of our own field. In far too many schools, teachers are facing impossible teaching situations where they feel forced to drill for tests using ineffective methods. Our professional organizations across the board must come to the defense of research-based practice and support our teachers. That said, teacher-training programs need to focus on developing teachers who understand when and how to employ intentional teaching strategies. I challenge my undergraduate students with real scenarios. I might say, this is going on in your class in the dramatic play area. What can you do to turn this into an intentional math (or science, literacy, etc.) learning experience without taking control away from the children. These skills have to be practiced. As teacher educators, we need to provide many opportunities for that to happen. The lesson plans that students write should require them to think of questions or comments they can make during implementation of their activity to encourage children’s thinking. This trains future teachers to think ahead to intentional teaching opportunities. Future teachers also need to learn to analyze children’s thinking levels based on current research and best practice so that they know how to model within the zone of proximal development.
6. Would you recommend additional teacher training for STEM instruction? Yes. I think there are many ways to fit STEM into the curriculum, even with the tight schedules that most teachers face. Finding the connections between STEM disciplines and other areas of the curriculum can expand student’s opportunities. Also, there are ways that math and science can be incorporated into traditionally non-instructional times, such as recess, lunch, and transitions.
7. What would STEM training look like? At the university level, we have tried several models. Co-taught courses, in which faculty from math, science, or engineering teach alongside faculty from education have been very successful for both pre-service and in-service teachers. As teachers learn content from the discipline specialists, the education faculty can relate the teaching and learning strategies teachers are using to content and pedagogy they can use in their own classrooms. Teachers have the opportunity to experience the same hands-on, inquiry-based learning that is recommended practice for their own classrooms. As teachers gain confidence in their own understanding of the material, they become much more eager to incorporate STEM learning into their own classrooms. Follow-up sessions and consultation should also be part of the model. This gives teachers a chance to share their experiences and advise other teachers who may run into road blocks.