While most early childhood teachers are comfortable with learning centers, fewer probably would say they’re comfortable with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), a real focus in education these days. But Deirdre Englehart, co-author of STEM Play, approaches learning centers through a STEM lens and believes themes can be integrated into centers to promote creativity and higher-level thinking. Deirdre joined me on Studentcentricity to discuss this, along with educator Jill Berkowicz, who is co-author of The STEM Shift.
Following our discussion, Deirdre contributed the following additional thoughts:
Most children are engaged in STEM when they play in learning centers. Teachers can enhance the STEM learning when they provide specific materials in centers and when they introduce activities prior to learning centers. In this way, teachers are not directing learning centers, but they can plant the seeds that may grow through play. During learning centers, teachers can observe children and consider the STEM connections. They can assist children, ask questions and interact with them in ways that do not disrupt the flow of play. At the end of learning centers, teachers can invite children to share activities, explain ideas or provide additional information that may strengthen and support learning. The use of language can help children to solidify ideas they had during play. Teachers can also provide specific vocabulary or share related information as children share their experiences.
Jill further elaborated:
The belief that STEM is about four distinct subjects is a misleading one. The manner in which these four subjects interact with each other offers a model for how all learning can take place. "STEM-based subject integration challenges the current nature of our "siloed" educational systems and encourages teachers to work together in inter-and trans-disciplinary ways" (The STEM Shift p. xv). Teachers of the little ones, as they combine play and learning need to grow in their understanding of the concepts that they do teach. Block building, for example, holds engineering concepts. Mathematical concepts are used in problem solving in many ways. But most teachers of the young are better prepared to understand developmental issues than they are the academic underpinning of what they are, in fact, teaching. We need a different kind of preparation of our teachers of the young, and we need leaders to understand that this type of teaching and learning best begins at the beginning and is included throughout the school experience until they walk across the graduation stage.
Project- and problem-based learning that exists in the kindergarten classrooms are called to enter the rest of the system. Professional partners from the field need to be invited into schools physically or digitally, allowing students access to the real people who apply the very concepts they are learning in their classrooms. This question is a system-wide one, not just for the little ones. The kindergarten teachers can learn from the high school teachers and vice versa. Teachers of the little ones can learn more about the concepts that support the activities they plan. Teachers of the older ones can learn more about using activities to engage their learners. They all can learn from the professionals in the field.
This is an exciting step in to teaching and learning for this century. The children need it in order to be prepared, beginning as little ones, to live and learn in this world.
If the idea of making STEM part of your curriculum makes you nervous, remember that you’re already facilitating STEM exploration and discovery, much of it likely happening in your learning centers. But it’s important to be intentional about it. Doing so will offer the children a great deal more than if it’s simply accidental. The books of these two wonderful educators can help.