New report outlines ways to support high-quality STEM education

National discourse about educational policy frequently focuses on the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math curricula, also known as STEM concepts. But historically, there has been little expert guidance around what makes for effective early childhood STEM policy and practice.

Now, a new report by a group of early childhood leaders offers a series of guiding principals and recommendations for educational leaders, policy makers, researchers, and program funders on ways they can take action to support high-quality STEM education and experiences for young children.

The report, “Early STEM Matters: Providing High-Quality STEM Experiences for All Young Learners,” is the culmination of two years of work by the Early Childhood STEM Working Group, which was co-organized by Erikson Institute and UChicago STEM Education at the University of Chicago. With the report, the working group, which includes scholars, policy makers, curriculum developers, and educators from across the United States, aims to inform the public discussion around STEM experiences in the early years.

There has been a call for richer and more meaningful STEM education in the United States, and one of the chief reasons is related to the growth of national economy, says working group member Jie-Qi Chen, Ph.D., senior vice president of academic affairs, dean of faculty, and founder of the Early Math Collaborative at Erikson.

“To ensure our nation retains its competitive edge in the 21st century, it is imperative that we offer our young children high-quality, meaningful STEM education that inspires, informs, and motivates them,” Dr. Chen says. “Through this report, we hope to enhance the deep understanding of individuals and agencies so that they can make informed decisions about early STEM education that set us up for success.”

High-quality STEM experiences beginning a young age can have lasting impact in children’s lives, the report states. Studies show that children who are exposed to high-quality STEM experiences from a young age develop skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, that prepare them for life. Research also has shown that early achievement in math is a strong predictor of later academic achievement.

In the report, the working group identifies four guiding principals that serve to shape future actions and decisions around STEM in early childhood:

  • Adult supervision is necessary to help guide children through their STEM experiences and support their natural curiosity.
  • Discussion and visual representation, such as drawing and writing, must be a part of STEM education.
  • Building adults’ confidence in STEM concepts is important to shaping children’s own attitudes toward STEM.
  • Culture, race, and socio-economic status influence children’s STEM experiences.

These guiding principals inform the working group’s six recommendations for improving early STEM experiences:

  1. Through advocacy and messaging, raise awareness about the importance of access to high-quality STEM education for all children.
  2. Improve STEM-related teacher preparation and ongoing professional development.
  3. Involve parents in their children’s STEM experiences by offering initiatives and resources that encourage their participation outside the classroom.
  4. Develop resources and offer guidance to support educators’ efforts to implement STEM experiences in the classroom.
  5. Make sure that educational standards at the state level explicitly address STEM disciplines.
  6. Establish a long-term research agenda to shape ongoing support for and development of early childhood STEM education.

Several members of the Early Childhood STEM Working Group were invited to the White House last spring to participate in a symposium on STEM in early childhood, along with members of Erikson’s Early Math Collaborative and Technology in Early Childhood Center Director Chip Donohue, Ph.D., who also served as a member of the working group. By bringing together early childhood leaders from different disciplines, the working group was able to produce a report that promotes cross-fertilization of the individual disciplines that make up STEM education, Dr. Chen says.

“As a group, we wanted to emphasize the substance behind the STEM concepts and illustrate what makes for high-quality education in science, technology, engineering, and math,” Dr. Chen says. “We must do more than say ‘STEM is important.’ STEM education in the early years has to be driven by the latest understanding of foundational concepts, processes, and practices of the individual STEM disciplines and how young children learn.”

Read the full report