Why STEM education should be introduced early on for children

May 5, 2020

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How STEM education early on can save the US economy

Melissa, a brand communications professional, always wanted to rub shoulders with the who’s who of the STEM world. She lived in the bubble that once in college she would pursue engineering and thereafter a full-fledged STEM career. She enrolled for a degree in physics, but a few months into it, she realised she wasn’t cut out for the subject. Ultimately, she switched to humanities and ended up majoring in communications.

However, today she is a determined mother, who wants to see her daughter excel and pursue a career in STEM. She wants to inspire her little one as early as possible, as she attributes lack of early motivation to be the main reason behind her switching from physics. But her question is should she start introducing STEM to her four-year-old immediately or should she wait for a couple of years?

This is the dilemma raging in the minds of most parents and teachers as to  when it is the right age or time to introduce STEM to children. They also battle between how and when to introduce the concepts in the early education process.

The answer is simple:

There’s no stipulated age or time to start the basics of STEM, meaning it’s never too early to start teaching your child.

And the ideal way to implement the concepts is by introducing them to nature or your surroundings. It is all about how you encourage your child to think in a more connected and holistic way.

Susan Hockfield, the first lady president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that STEM education should be introduced as early as Kindergarten to enhance children’s enthusiasm, interest and exposure. She feels that waiting to motivate children to take up STEM till they reach college will not boost their confidence level. She also believes that a strong K-6 foundation is required to make STEM learning easier for children. This is testimony to why taking up STEM in college has increasingly led to failure or disinterest.

As they say,

Kindergarten children are confident in spirit, infinite in resources and eager to learn. Everything is still possible.

 

Early education panel experts suggest you don’t need to incorporate digital learning tablets or some fancy technology while teaching STEM to your child. For instance, simply building structures with blocks can make them learn about engineering. Filling their plastic cups with holes drilled all over the cup can make them learn about water pressure. Using lights to create shadows can teach them several important concepts in physics.

These might be simple hands-on activities but can go a long way in helping your little one learn the basic concepts of STEM better and faster. Children are perfectly adapted to learn STEM concepts at a very young age. The only key is to tap into their innate and natural curiosity about the entire environment. It is, therefore, extremely important to catch them young and instil in them the curiosity to ask questions frequently and to dig deeper into the crux of the matter. Let’s take a lowdown of some of the key points as to why it is extremely crucial to start early.

 

Fosters academic excellence

Lilian G. Katz — in her paper “Stem in the Early Years,” — mentions that the best practice for early STEM education is to let children be actively engaged in their own learning. Research also indicates that when you allow your children to take their own initiatives, they reap the benefits long-term.

The Boston Children’s Museum’s “STEM Sprouts Teaching Guide” exhorts parents and teachers to encourage children to ask questions related to “what” rather than the “whys”. According to the guide, ‘what’ will focus on their surrounding and make them conscious of what they are noticing and doing, thus motivating them to investigate and dig deeper; while asking more of “why” means there’s always a ready answer to fall back on. This will make them better communicators, keen observers and confident enough to take on the world.

Studies reveal that children who are exposed to STEM early on fare better in academics than those who are introduced late.

Research also indicates how teachers who are well-equipped to teach STEM play an important role in guiding children, who outperform students with less experienced teachers

One of the best practices in teaching STEM is to make learning more relevant by letting children explore their environment. The more actively engaged they are with their environment and surrounding, the faster they will grasp and learn things.

For instance, instead of creating math worksheets to help teach counting, you can take your children out and help them count real objects in their surrounding like flowers, leaves, benches, pillars etc. This technique will help them learn better as they are learning the concepts in an interesting context rather than sitting in the classroom and learning by rote.

Long-term studies have also shown that when you integrate math and science learning by letting children explore their surroundings, the learning becomes more relevant. Children become more observant as they start identifying objects and exploring patterns, shapes and sizes.

For instance, did you know that the most bridges and constructions have triangular shapes; it is because the triangle offers highest structural strength in geometry.

Children also get inquisitive and start asking questions, thus stimulating their sense of investigation. As this concept keeps them naturally engaged, they not only enjoy their learning process, but also get to develop their STEM skills.

Early education of your children should be to tap into their natural curiosity and give them enough opportunity to be actively involved in their own learning. A natural setting, in all likelihood, will create limitless options to investigate and go in depth, thus helping them strengthen their STEM skills and lay a strong foundation for their learning. The passive, rote-learning technique that most schools adopt should be replaced with an active, hands-on, interactive learning, including do-it-yourself (DIY) activities.

 

Prepares for college curriculum

According to the Census Bureau, about 74 percent of college graduates with STEM degrees switch to non-STEM jobs, including social work, law, arts etc. The switch is mainly because those students do not enjoy STEM subjects as they were not exposed to STEM early on.

Once they reach college, the curriculum seems either boring or difficult to cope with, thus making them go back to their comfort level. Despite the demand for STEM graduates with higher salaries than their non-STEM counterparts, students refuse to pursue STEM careers. This is indeed a bad news for employers and firms that want to fill the STEM positions.

It has been observed that children who are introduced to STEM early on, set the stage for their college curriculum later. Besides scoring higher in the SAT and needing less remedial classes when they start college, these children are most likely to pursue a career in STEM with confidence. Since they have a better understanding of foundational STEM practices, they develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. STEM experiences also provide children with inspiring, engaging and relevant contexts in which to implement and learn several skills they are working on.

Therefore parents and educators should remember that children require high-quality early STEM education that will shape their minds and beliefs, which in turn will see them transition into successful STEM professionals. Also, educators should consider several ways they use technology as a learning tool and encourage children from being media consumers to media creators that will focus on using them for collaboration, communication, documentation, discovery, research and exploration.

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Can fill the skill-set gap

According to a 2016 jobs report by CNN Money, there are about 5.8 million STEM job openings in the US that are awaiting to be filled. But there are just not enough skilled professionals to fill the vacancies.

This skill-set shortage can be critical to the economy, as companies lose hundreds of dollars in a day, creating a negative impact. Several economic projections point out that there’s a need for 1 million STEM professionals than the US can churn out at the current rate in the next 10 years. STEM jobs have increasingly grown by 17 percent compared to the 10 percent growth rate of non-STEM jobs.

One of the key factors for this slow trend is the late introduction of STEM to schoolchildren. Investing in STEM education early for children is no more a luxury today but a necessity. Encouraging students to use iPads and laptops might make them more tech savvy and might be a step-forward in the right direction.

However, only use of technology is insufficient to fill the STEM skill-set gap. If we want US to stay ahead of the STEM curve, we need our students to learn hands-on and be more interactive by integrating the STEM curriculum in their education early on. Children need to be the creators of technology rather than be the consumers of it.

STEM is undoubtedly getting integrated in most of the US schools, but how many of those schools are introducing STEM early on?

According to the Math and Science Initiative, about 38 percent of students who take up STEM major in college end up dropping out; while 69 percent of high school graduates are not well-prepared to take up college-level science or math. This substantiates the fact that the students do not get the required exposure, support and guidance from their parents or teachers during the formative years.

It had never been so crucial to catch children young and tap on their STEM skills as early as Kindergarten. It is imperative that parents, educators, business and political leaders come together to promote and encourage students to use technology not as consumers but as innovative creators and makers through their classroom curriculum.

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Less reliant on foreign talent

Today we are largely dependent on foreign talent to fill in the STEM vacancies that remain unfilled throughout the country. A report from Brookings indicate that there are about 66 percent foreign students studying STEM as compared to a mere 48 percent of Americans. Also, the number of native-born students pursuing STEM degrees is growing at merely 1% yearly. The dismal growth at this age can be attributed to the fact that students are not being exposed to STEM at an early age despite a lot of talk about STEM and its benefits.

STEM workforce from the US — intrinsic for the country’s national security, global competitiveness and innovation enterprise — has seen a decline compared to the workforce from other developed countries. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology indicated that the US need to increase its yearly rate of undergraduate STEM degrees by over 34 percent to match the demand forecast for STEM professionals.

Mobilising homegrown talent should be the top priority, besides creating a huge corpus for STEM teacher training and mentoring initiative. We also need to dispel the gender and disparity gap in STEM.

According to the Cornell University Physics Teacher Education Coalition, there is a massive shortage of physics teachers leading to a real crisis-like situation. High school physics is essential for all STEM careers. This shortage is affecting students as they remain unprepared for college STEM curriculum.

A Cornell University study shows an alarming trend that needs to be rectified in order to have home-bred, well-trained teachers. Based on the study, 90 percent of students in the middle school are taught physics, chemistry or general sciences by a teacher without any major or certification in the subjects.

Out of all the other subjects, physics has taken the most hit as there is a severe shortage of well-trained teachers, with only one-third of them having a degree. It was also reported that 52 percent of the high schools in New York do not even offer physics. Also, almost one-third of all physics teachers in high school have taken less than three college physics classes.

Children are always curious to explore and inquisitive about the world around them. However, how far their curiosity is sustained depends on how much support and guidance they get from their elders, parents or teachers. They lose interest in things very easily, if we fail to motivate them by giving them timely solutions or answers. The prerogative should be to guide and foster interest to ignite their minds and ensure early STEM experiences. We should remember that our attitude towards STEM learning will profoundly influence our children’s beliefs and ultimately impact their abilities.

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Conclusion

The US might be in the midst of a STEM revolution today, as STEM takes a forefront with policymakers and educators recognizing the paradigm shift in the economy. However, the truth is that the floundering demographics speak otherwise and the US has a long way to go to be self-reliant on home-grown talent.

STEM includes the most engaging, hands-on subjects, but the way it is taught in schools needs to be more engrossing, more interactive and above all fun to be able to lure and catch the young minds early in life.

There should be more of Melissas coming forward to guide and nurture their little ones early in life to take up STEM so that their children don’t flounder or switch to non-STEM subjects when they reach college and when it is time to begin their careers.

To sum up, it would be apt to quote Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer of US News:

“While our universities are producing more STEM graduates, many of these students are foreigners on temporary visas. Despite significant public and private investment, we are still not developing an American STEM workforce to fill the jobs of the future. It’s clear that we need to focus our efforts on getting more kids, particularly women and African-Americans, interested in pursuing STEM at a young age.”

About Author
Urmila, who is a Big Data and STEM enthusiast, works as the head of communications with Mand Labs. She is a believer in transformation of life and career through STEM. She can be reached on Twitter @umarak

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