STEM Development Can Start with Babies

STEM Development Can Start with Babies 

You don't have to wait until a child takes his or her first math or science class to begin STEM education. It can actually start even before a child turns 1. An infant's capacity for "making inferences, drawing conclusions about cause and effect and reasoning about the probability of events" are the "roots"  that can develop into "lifelong STEM thinking skills," according to a new report from the Center for Childhood Creativity, a research and advisory arm of the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Northern California.

"The Roots of STEM Success: Changing Early Learning Experiences to Build Lifelong Thinking Skills," was written, according to Center Director Elizabeth Rood in an interview with Hechinger Report, to help parents and caregivers "see the ways that play and everyday life experiences" can build kids' STEM thinking." All that's required, she suggested, is to become "a smidge more intentional about the conversations we have, the questions we ask, and the experiences we provide."

The reason not to wait on STEM, the report noted, is because research has found that a child's early experiences build "brain architecture" and lay "the foundation for one's lifelong thinking skills and approach to learning," which are both critical to STEM success in later life.

Along the way, an emphasis on STEM can help children boost their literacy skills, gain an appreciation for mathematics as a "universal tool of scientific discovery and engineered innovation," and see how science is an "opportunity for creative, team-based and iterative problem solving."

The report reviewed more than 150 studies from cognitive and developmental psychology and education to identify six "research-based findings":

  • STEM thinking begins to develop early, even in babies. For example, once they learn how to hold a spoon, then they begin to experiment by dropping it or they shake a toy to see if it makes noise. These are ways that children "develop and test intuitive theories about the world around them," the report asserted.
  • Children need more play if they're going to become "strong STEM thinkers." Guided play, especially, where adults do what the kids do but "shape the learning experience" with questions and interaction "has been shown to be particularly effective for teaching STEM content."
  • STEM experiences help young children "hear and practice new words." Language exchange--with lots of questions in both directions--can help children gain spatial reasoning skills, which are useful later in math and engineering.
  • Hands-on learning gives children the opportunity to "self-direct exploration and inquiry," which is linked to "long-term interest in STEM," the report stated. These experiences can be found in museums and community-based organizations.
  • Growth mindset is important for later success; and adults play in a role in supporting children to understand that they have the capacity to change their brains through practice and intentional effort.
  • Children are capable of grasping abstract ideas and phenomena, "when challenged and supported to do so. "Executive function skills" play a role here by allowing them to incorporate new data and ignore irrelevant information as they're solving abstract problems.

The report's findings show the "promise and importance of prioritizing STEM learning" for kids from infancy through third grade, both in and out of school. They also demonstrate the importance of the adults in their lives to provide "well designed STEM experiences that support and challenge children in age-appropriate ways."

The full report is openly available on the Center for Childhood Creativity website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.