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Foundational STEM…

can be fun and useful!

Hello and welcome to the 55th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.


Science was fun and dangerous. This is paraphrased from an account by Joan Feynmann (sister of Nobel prize winning physicist, Richard Feynmann) when she describes what it was like for her to grow up with Richard Feynmann as a brother. As a kid, Richard Feynmann was very curious, and he would go out of his way to find out things. He would work with electricity and he would test what arrangement of wires gave his sister a shock. That’s just too much, one would think. But this curiosity is the essence of every child, right from their foundational years.


Early learners are basically curious. We are sure you have heard young learners ask a lot of questions. Why is the sky blue? Why are flies all the same size? Why are there no baby flies? Or as one of our team members recently confessed that as a kid, they were almost obsessively curious about why we can hear through walls but not see through them. A lot of times this curiosity also comes out in the form of ‘experiments’. Toddlers throw a plate down from the table. They will do it repeatedly even if no one pays attention to them. Why? They are innately building a model of understanding of the world around them. They are seeing if the pattern holds true. Does the plate always fall down when I push it off the table? And then they may conclude, yes. It is likely that early learners (toddlers to age 5) may not remember the results of their ‘experiment’ for very long, though. 


As we see with the plate experiment example, early learners are not just curious. They are also active thinkers and doers. So what does all this have to do with STEM learning? Also, what is STEM learning? In fact, what is STEM?


STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. And the learning of these subjects is STEM learning. So what does STEM learning have to do with early learners? One may argue that they cannot do STEM learning. However, research shows that early exposure to rudimentary aspects of STEM is critical for later science learning, a healthy attitude to learning, and development of basic cognitive skills. 


So we know that early learners are curious questioners, thinkers and doers – all attributes that will hold them in good stead for later learning. If we, as educators, manage to deplete the early learners of their innate traits, it would then be unfair to ask them to ‘get excited about learning’, especially STEM learning later in life. 


We hope that you are reasonably convinced that STEM education is useful for early learners. Let’s then move onto what STEM education is for early learners.


STEM education for early learners must be linked with development of certain skills. A few clues about this have already been scattered around in the ideas above. Leverage curiosity. Enhance pattern recognition skills. Ask questions. Ask good questions. Apart from these, problem solving, troubleshooting, evidence-based reasoning, and spatial reasoning are also some skills that can be built through STEM education.


Yeah, yeah. That’s all good. But what does it mean in the classroom? Teachers can’t be expected to teach students how to build a suspension bridge as part of the engineering portion of the early learning STEM curriculum. So what can a teacher do?


This is true. STEM education should look different from STEM education in middle school and from engineering in college. Let’s start with an example. Students are used to stacking building blocks. A good STEM-based approach would be to ask students to stack different objects as high as possible. You may give them paper cups, balls, and books along with their favourite, the blocks (These worksheets are from our unboxED Early Learning Curriculum. If you are interested in getting them, along with lesson plans, email at info@things-education.com or call +91 9898469961).


As you can see in the worksheet above, there are a number of options given to the students. So the students are encouraged to experiment and figure out which objects can make the tallest tower. Secondly, the students are encouraged to make predictions before they start experimenting. So the students will explore and come up with a rudimentary understanding of materials – rough, smooth, hard, soft, sharp, flat, round, etc. They will also be exposed to a part of the scientific process – creating a hypothesis. Making a prediction in the worksheet is essentially hypothesising.

As seen in the second part of the worksheet, once the students complete the experiment, they can record their results. And by comparing their results to their earlier predictions, they are essentially testing their hypothesis. 


The above example had a bit of science (the scientific method) and a bit of engineering (understanding material). This next example helps create an awareness and understanding of natural phenomena – magnetic attraction and repulsion.

Give the students a bunch of magnets (with their poles labelled N and S) and let them figure out when the magnets move closer together and when they move apart. Pattern recognition will help them understand the phenomenon that opposites attract and similar poles repel.


In this way, students get to explore, observe and experience the world around them. They do hands-on work which helps with their sensory, motor and cognitive development. A word of caution here is that we, as educators, should understand that early learners do not have an accurate model of the world around them. Clouds are opaque. Opaque things are solid. Hence, clouds are solid. And this is perfectly fine. STEM learning should, in fact, leverage such misconceptions to allow students to explore their inaccurate models. The phenomenon of rain can be used to, at least, get the students to doubt their belief that clouds are solid. Clouds give rain. Rain is water. Water is liquid. Can clouds be solid?


In this edition we have written about how early learners are naturally suited to STEM, why STEM is useful for early learners, what STEM actually means in early education and how it can be done in the foundational years classroom. We wrote on aspects of science and engineering out of all STEM. In the coming editions we will explore more such examples, especially from mathematics and technology. We will also delve deeply into some pitfalls of foundational years STEM.

 

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Edition: 3.3


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