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The importance of STEM learning

STEM learning is the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and maths and is part of our everyday lives. So why has STEM learning not been as significantly regarded as other subjects such as English? We talk to Maria Serveta, Audience Researcher at the Science Museum and Dr Sally Moomaw, an author and Professor of Early Childhood Education with a speciality in mathematics and science.

Why is STEM learning important?

It is important for many reasons. "STEM innovations have been rapidly transforming our everyday lives; from the way we grow our food, to the way we cure diseases, connect with friends and family, and understand the world around us" says Maria. Sally agrees, "STEM disciplines provides a pathway for children to explore a wide range of exciting areas in science, math, and engineering. Preschool children are naturally interested in science and math. Almost everything young children do involves exploring their world".

Maria discusses this further, "It's about developing skills such as creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and curiosity. These skills are transferable to a wide range of situations that children may face later in life." Not only this, but "children who engage in science and math regularly develop circuits to make learning in these areas faster and easier" adds Sally, who believes that the neglect of these skills contributes to children being left behind. Maria continues, "it is key that everyone in society, not just a select few, are confident in engaging with STEM subjects in order to thrive in the modern world."

What can be done to increase and improve the interest and education in STEM subjects in the early years?

"Children think like scientists. They are naturally curious because everything is new to them" says Maria, "Educators and parents will know how many ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions 3-year-olds can express about anything– ‘Why is the sky blue?’, ‘Why do we have two eyes?’, ‘How do fish breathe?’ and so on. However, how often do we treat these questions from children as scientific enquiries based on first-hand observations?"

Sally adds that "practitioners and parents need to be educated. We know that children learn best when they can they interact with materials and observe the result. When this is accompanied by adult dialogue, they learn even more. Learning in science should be through scientific inquiry."

"Supportive adults are key to STEM learning, particularly for girls and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Children need adults who believe that all young people are capable of reaching their full potential." Maria continues, "at the Science Museum Group, while engaging with children directly, we also seek to engage and inspire the adults who accompany young children in our museums in seeing the value of hands-on STEM learning."

Lastly, both Maria and Sally agree that "play in early childhood is essential to development". Having this, "contributes to the cognitive, social and emotional well-being of children."  Maria adds that to become confident STEM thinkers, children need to play. "Whether play is free or guided by an adult who offers activities inspired by the child’s interests, play is ideal for learning, practicing and developing new skills." 

Why should science be seen as just as important as other elements such as maths in England’s Early Years Foundation Stage and Wales’ Foundation Phase?

Maria begins that "both maths and science are equally important. And they can be introduced together since early years children learn holistically" while Sally comments that "understanding science is critical for understanding the world. We can see how ignorance of science has contributed to serious consequences for the by studying science, children learn that environments are connected".

"Thinking like a scientist starts from infancy when babies draw conclusions through cause and effect as they experiment with their immediate surroundings. By building on this curiosity early you can have real impact on how children learn" says Maria.

Have we traditionally focused too much on early literacy skills and not on STEM skills?

Sally mentions that "they are both important. Literacy has been a primary focus for the past two decades and STEM skills should have the same focus." Maria continues that this focus "has been shifting significantly. Recent research has shown that STEM learning boosts language development which leads in turn to enhanced STEM thinking."

She continues that as "children engage in playful STEM experiences they hear and use new words and engage with new concepts" and if "children spend time engaging in scientific inquiry, they will have a much better comprehension of the material they read that related to their world" adds Sally. Science and language learning develop in tandem and should not be seen separately but as life skills that complement each-other.

What examples are there of STEM learning?

  • Use a pendulum as a weight. The children can stack up blocks and try to knock them over with the pendulum. How many blocks are left standing? Does the length of the cord or change in weight change this? 
  • Get messy in the water! Children can learn about liquids verses solids, water flows; sand doesn’t. If you pour water through a funnel, it flows into the water in the table. If you pour sand through a funnel, it makes a pile and eventually plugs the bottom of the funnel.
  • Cooking is a great STEM activity. It is chemistry 101. Think about making scrambled eggs. When children crack an egg, a liquid spills out. When you add heat, the egg changes from a liquid into a solid. Simply letting it cool does not change the egg back into a liquid. But yet ice is different as it melts when it's warm but can be refrozen into ice. 

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