Do you want to know how to engage children in STEM virtually? We are pleased to invite Dr. Mere-Cook to share some of her experiences with us!
About the author: Yvette Mere-Cook has a Doctorate in Special Education from the University of San Francisco and a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy from Boston University. Dr. Mere-Cook teaches at Boise State University in the Early and Special Education Department and researches the role of early childhood STEM education on the inclusion of children with disabilities. Partnering with Idaho STEM Action Center, Dr. Mere-Cook led a team of early childhood educators in a year-long exploration on how to integrate STEM with young learners, both with and without disabilities. Most recently, Dr. Mere-Cook has also returned to the classroom as a pediatric occupational therapist working with preschoolers with disabilities and providing them opportunities and access to STEM as a vehicle that drives their IEP goals.
With the new school year in full swing, several young children with disabilities are participating over virtual platforms. Although we all wish we can be in the classroom, I have found a way to bring STEM learning to life through engaging in weekly groups that provide our students time to explore, create, and share with teachers, families, and classmates.
Young children with disabilities do not always have the opportunities to explore their curiosities and interests at school. Explicit instruction, adult directed tasks, and specialized interventions often take priority in specially designed preschool classrooms. These evidence-based instructional supports are critical but they limit students’ naturally occurring opportunities to explore, create, and solve problems in ways that are meaningful to the child (Huskens et al., 2015; McClure et al., 2017; Steinbrenner et al., 2020)
Therefore, I established a weekly group that meets virtually and incorporates the steps of the engineering design process, Explore, Create, and Improve (Museum of Science, Boston, 2018). Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions that could be helpful to families/ caregivers and educators alike.
How do I design and present the weekly investigations?
- I get to know the children’s interests: I surveyed families asking them to list the activities or topics that were of interest to their children. Building, painting, and cause and effect games on the IPAD were the top 3 choices.
- I incorporate and work on children’s IEP goals during STEM learning: Although all children’s IEP goals are different, they often have areas in common: expressive language, fine motor skills, and self-regulation. I am mindful to provide opportunities for children to work on these goal areas. I also invite the children’s teachers and related service providers to observe and take data on specific goals.
For instance, the STEM Group is a wonderful opportunity to address social interactions and communication. I usually have 5-6 children in attendance and I ask parents and caregivers to unmute themselves. For working on expressive language, I ask specific children questions such as, “Holly, what are you using to make your ramp?” or “Sam, what objects do you have today?”. When testing the creations, I will ask students to say “Ready, Set, Go” or count 1, 2, 3. I also encourage children to look and comment on each other’s creations. For instance, I say: “Look! Matt is using a book with a hard cover as his ramp. Jill, how is your ramp different from Matt’s? For some students that use visual supports, I bring the choice boards or sentence strip so they can express themselves.
- I have a plan, but I follow the children’s lead: I create multi-week investigations centered children’s interests (building) and classroom themes (Fall leaves, pumpkins). I make certain to adjust weekly challenges based on the children’s engagement in the previous week and use their ideas to inform our next steps. So I have a plan, but I follow where the children take me.
- I give parents time to gather the materials: I inform families of the suggested materials needed for the STEM group with a short video clip explaining how we may use these items to explore and create solutions for the problem that the children will solve. I make certain to do this before the end of the week so parents have time over the weekend to prepare.
- I use existing resources: I use the framework from Wee Engineer, the Preschool Curriculum from Engineering is Elementary (Museum of Science, Boston, 2018) to frame our problem. I use familiar Sesame Street characters over the screen to frame our engineering challenge:
For example, I shared my screen that had this slide and described the following problem:
Elmo wants to visit Abby at her house but he needs a boat that will help him float down the river. Could you help Elmo by building a boat strong enough for him to float down the river? We then start building and creating. Some children build with materials that I suggest such as folding aluminum foil or testing out different plastic food storage containers. Others go to their rooms and grab blocks or other building toys to test in the water. A few students add to creations that their parents and caregivers start for them.
What strategies do I use with families to engage their children in STEM learning?
- Explore Alongside the Child: Families and caregivers help children participate over virtual platforms such as Zoom. So we encourage parents and caregivers to stay and explore alongside their children. I talk to parents during the sessions and model how to point out similarities and differences in materials. For instance, when building a boat for Elmo, one child had a small piece of wood and some aluminum foil. I asked parents to describe to their child how these are different. For instance, I model, “The wood is thick and heavy. The foil is thin and very light.”
- Find Everyday Items can Promote STEM learning: I try to encourage families to take nature walks to find materials to explore such as leaves, pine cones, acorns, and sticks. I also ask families to save recyclables and broken electronics. These items and other loose parts provide rich opportunities for STEM learning (Daly & Beloglovsky, 2015).
- Use Books to Strengthen and Expand on STEM Concepts: I look for books, both fiction and non-fiction, that connect to our STEM investigations. Right now, since libraries are closed or have limited hours, I try to give families links to Read Alouds. For the boat investigation, I provided the books What Sinks? What Floats? by Rozanne Lanczak Williams and What Floats in a Moat, by Lynne Berry. It’s helpful if you can give families these resources as a way to preview the main concepts that will be explored during the upcoming STEM group.
What other helpful tips can I give to parents/caregivers and educators for engaging young children with disabilities in STEM learning?
- Provide time. Not all young children or young children with disabilities explore in the same way. So set aside time to explore and wonder.
- Leave materials out for further investigation. Children may explore for a few minutes and then move to another part of the room. By leaving materials out after the STEM Group and accessible to them, young children with disabilities can explore in their own way and in their own time.
- Embed needed accommodations and supports. For some students, they may be wary about trying new things. Therefore, I use a First–Then board when introducing a new investigation. This helps them know what we will be exploring and then they can engage in a more familiar activity. Also, as an occupational therapist, I am always mindful of sensory sensitivities and preferences. When engaging in the boat challenge, I asked parents/caregivers to use warm water for those children that are sensitive to cold and offer tools that allows them to move the items in the water without having to touch it. These include measuring cups, spoons, age appropriate tongs, and other tools (strawberry huller, large spoon, and clothespins).
- Get to know children’s interests
- Be intentional and have a plan BUT remember to follow children’s lead
- Incorporate and work on children’s IEP/IFSP goals
- Give time to families to gather loose parts/items around the house and also for children to explore and wonder
- Use accommodations and modifications to ensure children can fully participate
- Work with families to use everyday objects and materials
What successes and challenges have you had when engaging young children with disabilities in a distance learning environment?
- Daly, L. & Beloglovsky, M. (2015). Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children. Redleaf Press. https://www.redleafpress.org/Loose-Parts-Inspiring-Play-in-Young-Children-P1128.aspx
- Huskens, B., Palmen, A., Van der Werff, M., Lourens, T., & Barakova, E. (2015). Improving collaborative play between children with autism spectrum disorders and their siblings: The effectiveness of a robot-mediated intervention based Lego therapy. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45,3746-3755. doi: 10.1007/s10803-014-2326-0
- McClure, E. R., Guernsey,L., Clements, D., Nall Bales,S., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N. & Levine M.H. (2017). STEM starts early: grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood.” Education Digest 86(4): 43-51. http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/wpcontent/uploads/2017/01/jgcc_stemstartearly_final.pdf.
- Museum of Science (2016-2018). Engineering is Elementary, Wee Engineer Curriculum.
- Steinbrenner, J.R., Hume, K., Odom, S.L., Morin, K.L., Nowell, S.W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S. McIntryre, N.S., Yucesory-Ozkan, S., & Savage M.N. (2020). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team.