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Project Approach and STEM Learning for ALL

Read the blog post and learn how to use project approach to support inclusive early STEM learning! 

By Sallee Beneke

Project work is an approach to learning that can support inclusion of diverse learners. A project is an in-depth investigation of a topic worth learning more about, usually undertaken by a group of children within a class. Unlike many teacher-initiated components of the curriculum, the goal of a project is for children to learn more about a high interest topic, rather than to find right answers to questions posed by a teacher. It capitalizes on children’s natural interest and motivation and the satisfaction that comes from becoming an expert on a topic. It also provides them a common focus.

Projects are in-depth investigations that are typically about six to eight weeks long. The course of the investigation is driven by children’s natural interest and motivation. Similar to the scientific inquiry cycle (Worth & Grollman, 2003, p. 19), children begin with a set of questions about the topic, predict or make hypotheses of possible answers to their questions, proceed to collect data by making observations and engaging in investigations, and describe/document their findings.

Over the course of a project children act as researchers or explorers that investigate a topic first-hand by examining artifacts, interviewing experts, doing field work, and researching in books and online. Children represent their learning in a variety of ways and teachers can track their growing understanding of the topic by observing and documenting these representations. For example, a teacher might note that at the beginning of a project on butterflies, a child draws the child’s body as a single shape. But, over time she can observe increased depth in the child’s understanding when the drawings begin to include a head, abdomen, and thorax. A rich classroom environment can provide many opportunities for children to represent their growing understanding of a topic (e.g., through their dramatic play in the housekeeping or block areas, conversations). Planning of next steps in an investigation is negotiated between the teacher and the children. One question leads to another, so a major role of the teacher in project work is to anticipate the experiences and opportunities that will satisfy children’s curiosity about the topic and provoke further interest.

Using project approach in early STEM. learning supports inclusion because it is collaborative rather than competitive, and it emphasizes children’s abilities, rather than their disabilities. As children work together to find out about a topic and create group constructions that represent their knowledge, community is strengthened and IEP and IFSP goals can be met effectively through meaningful, naturalistic opportunities. It also increases opportunities for teachers to adapt activities for a range of abilities, reduces the need for guidance techniques, and has a positive impact on play levels (Beneke & Ostrosky, 2015).

Selecting a useful topic for projects is an important key to getting project work started. Abstract themes (e.g., feelings, the five senses, nutrition, or weather) are intangible and will not support project work. Concrete things (e.g., leaf) or groups of things (e.g., forest) that children can explore with all their senses are more useful. Topics that meet the following criteria are likely to be successful:

  1. The topic is directly observable in the children’s own environments (real world).
  2. It is within the experiences of most children in the group.
  3. Firsthand direct investigation is feasible and not potentially dangerous.
  4. Local resources (field sites and experts) are favorable and readily accessible.
  5. It has good potential for representation in a variety of media (e.g., role play, construction, writing, multidimensional graphic organizers).
  6. Parental participation and contributions are likely, and parents can become involved.
  7. It is sensitive to local culture, as well as culturally appropriate in general.
  8. It is potentially interesting to many of the children or represents an interest that adults consider worthy of developing in children.
  9. It is related to curriculum goals and standards of the school or district.
  10. It provides ample opportunity to apply basic skills (depending on the age of the children).
  11. It is optimally specific—not too narrow and not too broad (e.g., a study of the teacher’s own dog or “buttons” at the narrow end, and the topic of “music” or “the seasons” at the broad end). It is interesting to the teacher. (Beneke, Ostrosky, & Katz, 2019).

References

Beneke, S. & Ostrosky, M. M. (2015) Effects of the project approach on preschoolers with diverse abilities. Infants & Young Children.

Beneke, S., Ostrosky, M. M., & Katz, L. (2019). The Project Approach for All Learners. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Worth, Karen & Grollman, Sharon. (2003). Worms, shadows, and whirlpools: Science in the early childhood classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Infusing Family Culture in STEM Learning

Read the blog post written by Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang, and learn how to infuse family culture in STEM learning opportunities.

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

By Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

I have lived in the United States for almost eight years, and I am always proud of my cultural heritage. Throughout these eight years, whenever I see my culture being reflected positively in the community, in my workplace, or through mass media, I feel a sense of belonging.

We all need to feel a sense of belonging and positive affirmation. As a researcher and practitioner in the field of early intervention and early childhood special education, I have always been aware of the importance of building a sense of belonging for children and their families . Certainly, creating a sense of belonging is not only displaying photos of children and families from various cultural backgrounds but also embedding children’s experiences and family traditions into the teaching practices.

Food is a great way to provide connections to different cultures and family traditions. For example, I grew up eating congee (粥) or rice porridge and Dan Bing (i.e., Taiwanese egg pancake roll; 蛋餅) for breakfast. My family and I love having hot pot every holiday and special occasion.

In this blog post, I will describe an activity that could use food and pretend play as a means to support children’s STEM learning. At the end of the blog post, I will also introduce a couple of STEM storybooks about AAPI culture and food.

Making play dough dumplings

Dumplings are something I often make and eat with my family. Our dumplings use a flour-based dough and we use cabbage, ground meat, and chives that are lightly seasoned with soy sauce as the filling. We then either steam or pan fry our dumplings. There are many other types of dumplings of different shapes and sizes within Taiwanese and Chinese cultures as well as in other cultures around the world. As an occupational therapist, I love using this activity to improve children’s fine motor skills, practice bilateral coordination, and engage in STEM concepts (e.g., sequencing, counting, shape).

Materials:

  • Play dough
  • A play dough rolling pin or a wooden stick
  • A Circle shape cookie cutter or the bottom of a drinking cup.
  • Ingredients (e.g., marbles, beads, small blocks)

Directions:

  • Take a small amount of the dough, roll it into a sphere
  • Use the palm to press the dough down
  • Use the rolling pin to flatten the dough and make it into a circular shape (or use the cookie cutter)
  • Place the ingredients in the middle of the rolled out dough or “dumpling skin”
  • Fold the “dumpling skin” into half
  • Seal the dumpling by making creases on the top using your thumb and pointer finger

Visual pictures
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Use questions and conversation to engage children in STEM learning and talk about children’s culture and family tradition

  • What food does your family like to make and eat together on special days?
  • First, we roll the dough into a ball, then we roll it to flatten it. What should we do next?
  • We have 10 friends in class and everyone would like one dumpling. How many dumplings have you made? How many more do we need?
  • What shape are you making?
  • How many beads can you put in your dumpling? How can we put more ingredients in the dumpling?
  • What else would you like to fill dumplings with?

STEM storybooks about AAPI food culture that you could consider including on your bookshelves

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Luna's Yum Yum Dim Sum (Storytelling Math) 

Natasha Yim 

Math 

Luna is having Dim Sum on her birthday. She and her brothers are talking about how to share buns fairly. 

10509770088?profile=RESIZE_180x180Too Many Mangoes

Tammy Paikai

Science & Math 

Kama and Nani help their grandpa pick mangos from his giant mango tree.  After the picking, Kama and Nani share some mangoes with neighbors. 

10509777876?profile=RESIZE_180x180Ohana Means Family 

 Ilima Loomis 

 A family prepares a tasty root called Kalo for a traditional luau celebration.  

10509778880?profile=RESIZE_180x180One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale 

 Demi 

 Math

 A young girl tricks a greedy king to double one grain of rice every day for three years.  

10509780291?profile=RESIZE_180x180Ten Blocks to the Big Wok 

 Ying-Hwa Hu 

 Math 

 Mia and her uncle Eddie travel from their apartment to a restaurant in Chinatown. They see many things in Chinatown. 

10509781478?profile=RESIZE_180x180The Ugly Vegetables

Grace Lin 

Science 

A little girl and her mother grow vegetables in their gardens while their neighbors grow colorful flowers.  

10509783064?profile=RESIZE_180x180 

Kai Goes to the Farmers Market in Hawaii 

Catherine Toth Fox 

Kai ad his mother buy food grown in Hawaii from the farmers.

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Positive Affirmations in STEM

"As his mother and educator, it is essential to build his literacy experiences through books that represent people and characters that look like him." - Marye Vance. 

 

Marye and her son, Winston is taking a selfie

By Marye Vance

About the author:

Marye Vance is an early childhood professional educator, researcher, and parent with over 25 years of experience working with children and families. Her professional experiences include a Preschool Teacher, Mental Health professional for children, Program Coordinator for Smart Start, Technical Assistance Provider with a Resource and Referral Agency, Program Manager for Afterschool Programs, Child Protective Services Social Worker, Community College Instructor, and currently an Instructor in Early Childhood Education and Professional Development Coordinator of Teaching-Learning Center at Durham Technical Community College. She studied Elementary Education at Elizabeth-City State University, transferred to Winston-Salem State University receiving a Bachelor of Social Work degree. She obtained a Masters of Adult Education Degree with a concentration in Distance Education from the University of Phoenix. Currently, studying a Doctor of Education specializing in Performance Improvement Leadership. Recently inducted into The National Society of Leadership and Success. She’s co-authored publications and contributor to several literacy initiatives with Duke University Hospital NICU division and Book Harvest to name a few.

It is essential to build a child's self-worth to provide confidence in education. The aspirations and interests of children, in particular black and brown boys, are grounded in their community and culture. The first seed of confidence begins at home. Parents are widely considered a crucial part of their children's educational attainment and are arguably the closest to and most knowledgeable about their children's educational experiences. Research shows that parents' involvement in schools, their parenting practices, and socialization at home have both direct and indirect implications for children's academic outcomes (Banerjee, Harrell, & Johnson, 2011; Jeynes, 2007; Smalls, 2009).

Winston is playing a globe tellurionA firm believer in each one, teach one, providing Winston with positive aspirations through STEM has indeed grounded him in becoming a person full of imagination and charm. The book "I am smart, I am blessed, I can do anything!" by Alissa Holder & Zulekha Holder-Young provides aspirations for young black and brown boys to see themselves as capable human beings. Identity as an understanding of the self sits within a psychological orientation that, according to Erikson (1950, 1968), develops an integrated and functional sense of identity, which helps to unify the various aspects of an individual's life and to provide a sense of personal meaning and direction. According to Heidelberg (2013) stated, "this view of identity is important for individuals to provide a sense of personal self and direction and is the focus of those who are interested in the way in which individuals develop self-knowledge, self-construction, and self-discovery."Winston is sitting next to a table and playing play-doh

Winston loves the outdoors and all things dinosaurs. Since the precious age of two, his interest has been in dinosaurs. His interest in dinosaurs has grown to astrology. He loves to talk about the galaxy, stars, and the moon. His adventures outdoors expand to building spaceships for the dinosaurs to take off into space. Elements of the ground, such as the dirt, trees, and tiny insects that crawl in the earth, stimulate his interest. Digging for fossils and even singing a song or two about his adventure progress his love for science.

His science exploration evolved at the age of three, mixing solutions to stirring up a roaring lava volcano. Not only is experimental learning happening, but mathematics is as well. Is there an inventor on the rise? Garrett Morgan was a repairman and business owner. He invented the three-light traffic signal in 1923. He also invented the improved sewing machine and the gas mask. Winston learns about Mr. Morgan's inventions and many others, such as Henry Thomas Sampson, Jr., an inventor, and a nuclear engineer who invented the gamma-electric cell, which is the cell used in powering cell phones, in 1971 from Patrice McLaurin’s “Have you thanked an inventor today?”.In Winston's quest to explore science, he has built a solar robot and erupted a volcano for his dinosaurs.

As his mother and educator, it is essential to build his literacy experiences through books that represent people and characters that look like him. Not only is literacy the foundation of Winston's learning process, but instilling moral character plays a vital role in early learning experiences. All children can grow and build on what they have been taught and observed in life. By understanding the importance of education, the hope is that as his interest grows, his love for being the best person he is created to be.

References:

Banerjee, Meeta; Harrell, Zaje A T; Johnson, Deborah J.Journal of Youth and Adolescence; New York Vol. 40, Iss. 5, (May 2011): 595-605.

Siteine, A. (2013). 'Positive in their own identities?': Social studies and identity affirmation. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 48(2), 99-111. Retrieved from http://library.capella.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fpositive-their-own-identities-social-studies%2Fdocview%2F1496657234%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D27965

Williams, A. D., Banerjee, M., Lozada-Smith, F., Lambouths, Danny, I., II, & Rowley, S. J. (2017). Black mothers' perceptions of the role of race in children's education. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79(4), 932-946. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12410

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Read the blog post written by Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang and Dr. Michaelene M. Ostrosky, and learn how to embed STEM learning opportunities during motor play.  

Hsiuwen Yang's headshot

By Hsiu-Wen Yang, PhD. 

Technical Assistance Specialist at STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Micki Ostrosky's headshot

By Michaelene M. Ostrosky,  PhD.

Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor of Education in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

About the authors:

Dr. Hsiu-Wen Yang is a technical assistance specialist at the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMIE) Center and North Carolina Early Learning Network whose work aims to ensure ALL young children are included and can fully participate in learning activities. As a former occupational therapist, she has worked with young children with developmental disabilities and their families in a variety of settings (e.g., home, school, hospital). Her research focuses on early intervention, family-centered practices, parent coaching, inclusive practices, and social-emotional development.

Dr. Michaelene M. Ostrosky has been involved in curriculum development and research on the inclusion of children with disabilities, social emotional competence, and challenging behavior. Through her work on the National Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning she was involved in the development of the Pyramid Model for Supporting Social Emotional Competence in Young Children, and recently co-authored Unpacking the Pyramid Model: A practical guide for preschool teachers (2021). She also co-authored the Making Friends book (2016), which supports the acceptance of individuals with disabilities, and The Project Approach for All Learners (2018).

Gross motor play has a positive impact on children’s physical health and motor development, as well as contributing to pre-academic learning such as critical thinking skills, language development, and social-emotional development (Trawick -Smith, 2014). Nevertheless, some adults may wonder about the connection between motor play and STEM learning. Research shows that engagement in motor play provides important opportunities for children to develop pre-math skills and an understanding of spatial, temporal, and sequential concepts (Becker et al., 2014; Iverson, 2010), which are all related to STEM learning. Imagine a child who is playing with a ball. What STEM learning opportunities can you identify from this motor play? Here are some potential answers:

  • Gravity: If you throw a ball toward the sky, it will fall to the ground
  • Force and motion: If you push hard against a ball, it will roll across the floor

Below we have described a few activities and strategies to help you engage all children in STEM learning during motor play. These are based off of an early childhood curriculum, CHAMPPS: CHildren in Action: Motor Program for PreschoolerS (Favazza & Ostrosky, in press).

March around

  • Play Description: Ask children to march/jog/gallop/skip in a circle
  • Embed STEM learning:
    • Create movement patterns (e.g., march forward 5 steps, then backwards 5 steps).
    • Identify body parts as children do a motor activity, such as I am marching with my legs.
    • Ask children if they are feeling hot and sweaty following participation in a motor activity? Why do they think they feel that way?
    • Discuss how fast our hearts are beating after engaging in vigorous motor play. Ask children to touch their hearts and describe what they feel (i.e., Is their heart beating fast? Why?).

Animal Hopping

  • Play Description: Ask children “Which animals hop?” (i.e., bunny, frog, kangaroo). Then, ask children to jump around the room like the animal they named. Ring a bell after a minute or two and say Here comes a tiger!  Encourage children to return to their original spaces when they hear that phrase. Repeat 3-5 times and have children select a different animal, each time. 
  • Embed STEM learning:
    • Encourage children to count the number of times they hop
    • Use measurement words: hop higher, hop further
    • Emphasize position words: around, over, next to
    • Ask questions about different animals (e.g., What do they eat? Where do they live? What animal likes to chase rabbits?)

Considerations, Adaptations, and Accommodations:

Some children with disabilities need intentional and planned support from teachers and parents to help them access and participate in a variety of learning experiences. To ensure that all children can fully participate and engage in motor play and STEM learning, consider adapting the environment, materials, and instructions (see CARA’s Kit (Milbourne & Campbell, 2007 for ideas). You can:

  • Arrange the furniture to ensure that children can move around safely
  • Model and have children imitate movements, so that they can make connections between the words and movements
  • Use visual support cards to show the movements (see Image 1, Favazza & Ostrosky, in press)

visual picture of jump

  • Give children choices by asking them which movement they would like to do next, how many times they should do the movement, what pattern they should create (i.e., hop, walk, hop, walk), etc.
  • For children with physical disabilities, adapt the movements (i.e., both hands up in air versus hopping with two feet off the ground, holding onto something stationary like a chair or adult while hopping, etc.).

References
Becker, D. A., McClelland, M. M., Loprinzi, P. & Trost S. G. (2014) Physical Activity, Self-Regulation, and Early Academic Achievement in Preschool Children. Early Education and Development, 25, 56-70, DOI: 10.1080/10409289.2013.780505

Favazza, P. C. & Ostrosky, M. M. (in press). CHAMPPS: CHildren in Action: Motor Program for PreschoolerS. Paul H Brookes. 

Iverson, J. M. (2010). Developing language in a developing body: The relationship between motor development and language development. Journal of Child Language, 37(2), 229-261.

Milbourne, S., & Campbell, P. H. (2007). CARA's Kit: Creating adaptations for routines and activities. Philadelphia: Thomas Jefferson University, Child and Family Studies Research Programs. Distributed by DEC (www.dec-sped.org).

Trawick -Smith (2014). The physical play and motor development of young children: a review of literature and implications for practice. Retrieved from the web at: http://www1.easternct.edu/cece/files/ 2014/06/BenefitsOfPlay_LitReview.pdf.

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What is STEM?

What do we mean when we talk about STEM? Let's learn more from Dr. Harradine and Dr. Lim!

Christine Harradine's headshot

By Christine Harradine, PhD

PD Specialist at the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

Chihing Lim's headshot

By Chih-Ing Lim, PhD.

Co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education Center (STEMIE)

STEM is an acronym created by the National Science Foundation for science, technology (computational thinking), engineering, and mathematics. In early childhood, STEM can be taught alone or integrated intentionally in groups of two or three, or with the arts, language, literacy, and social-emotional learning throughout a child’s typical routines and daily activities.

Science is the study of content knowledge (energy & matter, force & motion, light, living & non-living things, Earth & its properties, sound, structure & properties of matter, and weather) and cross-cutting concepts (cause & effect, compare & contrast, patterns, stability & change, structure & function, and systems & their interactions) through child-level processes (ask, engage, observe, classify, investigate, sort, describe, analyze & interpret, and reflect).​

The technology part of STEM is often confused with devices such as tablets and laptops. Educational technology is sometimes discussed as a tool to promote learning in any content area. The “T” in STEM is the introduction of underlying concepts of building or creating technology, including computational thinking, which is the basic logic underlying computer science (DOE & DHHS, 2016).​ Specifically, computational thinking is the method used to problem-solve by determining ‘what’ (sequencing, looping, repetition, decomposition, and causation), ‘how’ (debugging), and ‘why’ through child-level processes (ask, engage, observe, create, investigate, describe, document, analyze & interpret, and reflect).​ Drs. Lisa Wadors and Jessica Amsbary, STEMIE team members give tips for practicing computational thinking skills with young children in this podcast.

The word “engineering” comes from the Latin words ingenium (which means “cleverness”) and ingeniare (which means “to devise”). At its most basic level, engineering is a systematic way of designing solutions to problems. These solutions can be new or improvements on existing solutions. Science and mathematics – as well as real-world experience - are central components. 

Mathematics is the study of patterns in numbers and space, including the concepts, processes, and structures of counting and numbers, space and shape, and symmetry, as well as a set of math practices by which math knowledge is developed, refined, and applied.​

In order for STEM to happen, two more of these content areas mix with a real-world situation and hands-on exploration to solve a problem or create something new.

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 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.

Dr. Yvette Mere-Cook is teaching STEM virtually

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.

Dr.Yvette Mere-Cook is using visual pictures for communication

  • 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:

Elmo and Abby is working on a STEM problem

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).

Materials for STEM investigations

  • 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). First-then board and a variety of spoons for water exploration

References

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. Museum of Science (2016-2018). Engineering is Elementary, Wee Engineer Curriculum.
  5. 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.
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At the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMI2E2) center, we are developing and enhancing the knowledge on the practices and supports necessary to improve access and participation within  early STEM learning  opportunities. But many of you may question why STEM is so important in the early years. This week, we invited Dr. Clements and Dr. Sarama to share their insights with us.

About the Authors
Douglas H. Clements's headshot Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D.
Dr. Clements received his PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Previously a preschool and kindergarten teacher, he has conducted funded research and published over 500 articles and books in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education.

Julie Sarama's headshotJulie Sarama, Ph.D.
Dr. Sarama received her PhD from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Dr. Sarama has taught secondary mathematics and computer science, gifted math at the middle school level, preschool and kindergarten mathematics enrichment classes, and mathematics methods and content courses for elementary to secondary teachers. She designed and programmed over 50 published computer programs, including her version of Logo and Logo-based software activities (Turtle Math™, which was awarded Technology & Learning Software of the Year award, 1995, in the category "Math"). 

How important is doing STEM in the early years…really? If my children do more STEM, will it make a difference later?

Absolutely, but you don’t have to take our word for it!  STEM in the early years has been found by researchers to be surprisingly important for development through life.

Let’s take a look at math first. The math children know when they enter kindergarten predicts their math achievement for years to come 1 out to 10th grade 2. Math also predicts later success in reading,1,3 so math appears to be a core component of cognition. Further, knowledge of math in the early years is the best predictor of graduating high school 4. One more: Number and arithmetic knowledge at age 7 years predicts socioeconomic status at age 42, even controlling for all other variables.5  These predictions may show that math concepts and skills are important to all of school and life. However,  math is much more: Math is critical thinking and problem-solving, and high-quality math experiences also promote social and emotional development, literacy, and general brain development!6,7,8,9 No wonder early STEM experience predicts later success.

Inside children, language and STEM are “best friends.”  That is, connections between the development of math and literacy are numerous and it’s a “two-way street”.10,11,12 The more math language children learn, such as “more,” less, “behind,” “above” and number and shape words, the more math children learn.13 More surprising, preschoolers’ narrative abilities, particularly their ability to convey all the main events of the story, offer a perspective on the events in the story, and relate the main events of the story to their lives, predict math achievement two years later.14 And, going the other way on this street, children who experience more high-quality mathematics in preschool grow in their expressive oral language abilities (measured by assessments devoid of any math vocabulary15). In another study in the UK, doing math increased later scores on English by 14 percentile points.16 

The same is true with science. First, early science matters to later science. Children who have primary-grade teachers trained in the U.S. science framework17 score significantly higher than their peers in fifth grade.18 Second, science activities excite children’s “STEM talk” that reflects scientific reasoning, including observing, predicting, comparing, explaining, and generalizing19. And reading for comprehension and reading-to-learn requires concepts and knowledge of the world, both of which STEM provides.20  Doing more science increases primary-grade children’s science, and math, and reading scores.21

Not just language, but many cognitive and affective, or emotional outcomes improve with STEM. Let’s consider two: executive function (EF) and approaches to learning. EF, including cognitive flexibility, updating working memory, and response inhibition, is one of the most important general cognitive abilities. EF is highly related to academic success 22 and particularly important to children with disabilities 23 as well as to children from low-resource communities. Research also has confirmed the importance of engagement in learning or approaches to learning. In one study, it was the single best predictor of learning as far out as fifth grade 24 ). Such engagement in learning, including persistence at tasks, eagerness to learn, attentiveness, learning independence, flexibility, and organization, was especially important for girls and minority students. 

The good news is, high-quality STEM may develop both!22 For example, EF predicts math22 and predicts science learning.25 Early STEM offers a fruitful context to foster EF and approaches-to-learning in many ways: 26,27 

•    STEM elicits children’s natural curiosity about the world.

•    STEM providing a unique opportunity to engage children in hands-on learning experiences. These experiences promote critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, persistence, and other adaptive domain-general learning skills such as EF.

In solving STEM problems, children make observations, engage in rich conversations with teachers and other children, and think flexibly to come up with predictions and solutions to their problems. Inherent to STEM is the expectation that we learn from failures and mistakes.28 Children learn to try and try again, practicing risk-taking, persistence, tolerance for frustration, and maintaining focus. 26,27

References

  1. Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., . . . Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1428–1446. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.43.6.1428
  2. Stevenson, H. W., & Newman, R. S. (1986). Long-term prediction of achievement and attitudes in mathematics and reading. Child Development, 57(3), 646–659. doi: 10.2307/1130343
  3. Duncan, G. J., & Magnuson, K. (2011). The nature and impact of early achievement skills, attention skills, and behavior problems. In G. J. Duncan & R. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality and the uncertain life chances of low-income children (pp. 47–70). New York, NY: Sage.
  4. McCoy, D. C., Yoshikawa, H., Ziol-Guest, K. M., Duncan, G. J., Schindler, H. S., Magnuson, K., . . . Shonkoff, J. P. (2017). Impacts of early childhood education on medium- and long-term educational outcomes. Educational Researcher, 46(8), 474–487. doi: 10.3102/0013189x17737739
  5. Ritchie, S. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). Enduring links from childhood mathematics and reading achievement to adult socioeconomic status. Psychological Science, 24, 1301–1308. doi: 10.1177/0956797612466268
  6. Aydogan, C., Plummer, C., Kang, S. J., Bilbrey, C., Farran, D. C., & Lipsey, M. W. (2005, June 5-8). An investigation of prekindergarten curricula: Influences on classroom characteristics and child engagement. Paper presented at the NAEYC, Washington, DC.
  7. Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., Layzer, C., Unlu, F., & Fesler, L. (2020). Effects on mathematics and executive function of a mathematics and play intervention versus mathematics alone. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 51(3), 301-333. doi: 10.5951/jresemtheduc-2019-0069
  8. Dumas, D., McNeish, D., Sarama, J., & Clements, D. (2019). Preschool mathematics intervention can significantly improve student learning trajectories through elementary school. AERA Open, 5(4), 1–5. doi: 10.1177/2332858419879446
  9. Sarama, J., Lange, A., Clements, D. H., & Wolfe, C. B. (2012). The impacts of an early mathematics curriculum on emerging literacy and language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(3), 489–502. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002
  10. McGraw, A. L., Ganley, C. M., Powell, S. R., Purpura, D. J., Schoen, R. C., & Schatschneider, C. (2019, March). An investigation of mathematics language and its relation with mathematics and reading . Paper presented at the 2019 SRCD Biennial Meeting, Baltimore, MD.
  11. Purpura, D. J., Day, E., Napoli, A. R., & Hart, S. A. (2017). Identifying domain-general and domain-specific predictors of low mathematics performance: A classification and regression tree analysis. Journal of Numerical Cognition, 3(2), 365–399. doi: 10.5964/jnc.v3i2.53
  12. Purpura, D. J., & Napoli, A. R. (in press). Early numeracy and literacy: Untangling the relation between specific components. Mathematical Thinking and Learning.
  13. Toll, S. W. M., & Van Luit, J. E. H. (2014). Explaining numeracy development in weak performing kindergartners. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 124C, 97–111. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.02.001
  14. O'Neill, D. K., Pearce, M. J., & Pick, J. L. (2004)Predictive relations between aspects of preschool children’s narratives and performance on the Peabody Individualized Achievement Test - Revised: Evidence of a relation between early narrative and later mathematical ability. First Language, 24, 149-183.
  15. Sarama, J., Lange, A., Clements, D. H., and Wolfe, C. B. (2012). The Impacts of an Early Mathematics Curriculum on Emerging Literacy and Language. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27, 489-502. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.12.002.
  16. Shayer, M. & Adhami, M. (2010). Realizing the cognitive potential of children 5–7 with a mathematics focus: Post‐test and long‐term effects of a 2‐year intervention. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(3), 363–379.
  17. National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
  18. Kaderavek, J. N., Paprzycki, P., Czerniak, C. M., Hapgood, S., Mentzer, G., Molitor, S., & Mendenhall, R. (2020). Longitudinal impact of early childhood science instruction on 5th grade science achievement. International Journal of Science Education, 1-20. doi: 10.1080/09500693.2020.1749908
  19. Henrichs, L. F., Leseman, P. P. M., Broekhof, K., & Cohen de Lara, H. (2011). Kindergarten talk about science and technology. In M. J. de Vries, H. van Keulen, S. Peters & J. W. van der Molen (Eds.), Professional development for primary teachers in science and technology: The Dutch VTB-Pro project in an international perspective (pp. 217–227). Boston: Sense.
  20. McClure, E. R., Guernsey, L., Clements, D. H., Bales, S. N., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N., & Levine, M. H. (2017). STEM starts early: Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. New York: NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
  21. Paprzycki, P., Tuttle, N., Czerniak, C. M., Molitor, S., Kadervaek, J., & Mendenhall, R. (2017). The impact of a framework‐aligned science professional development program on literacy and mathematics achievement of K‐3 students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(9), 1174–1196. doi: 10.1002/tea.21400
  22. Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., & Germeroth, C. (2016). Learning executive function and early mathematics: Directions of causal relations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36(3), 79–90. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.12.009
  23. Clements, D. H., & Sarama, J. (2019). Executive function and early mathematical learning difficulties. In A. Fritz, V. G. Haase & P. Räsänen (Eds.), International handbook of mathematical learning difficulties: From the laboratory to the classroom (pp. 755–771). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  24. Bodovski, K., & Youn, M.-J. (2011). The long term effects of early acquired skills and behaviors on young children’s achievement in literacy and mathematics. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 9(1), 4–19.
  25. Nayfeld, I., Fuccillo, J., & Greenfield, D. B. (2013). Executive functions in early learning: Extending the relationship between executive functions and school readiness to science. Learning and Individual Differences, 26, 81–88. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2013.04.011
  26. Bustamante, A. S., Greenfield, D., & Nayfeld, I. (2018). Early childhood science and engineering: Engaging platforms for fostering domain-general learning skills. Education Sciences, 8(3), 144. doi: 10.3390/educsci8030144
  27. Bustamante, A. S., White, L. J., & Greenfield, D. B. (2018). Approaches to learning and science education in Head Start: Examining bidirectionality. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 44, 34–42. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.02.013
  28. Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York, NY: Basic Books.
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STEMIE Center posted a blog post
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