In an effort to address the national need to guide more students to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researchers are developing curriculum which introduces STEM principles during the formative preschool years.
"The ability to apply STEM concepts to solve a variety of problems is key for students' future success as well as the nation's competitiveness in the global economy," said Martha Cyr, principal investigator of Seeds of STEM: The Development of an Innovative Pre-Kindergarten STEM Curriculum; and executive director of The STEM Education Center at WPI." Despite the evidence that introducing STEM during the pre-kindergarten years supports children's cognitive development and positive attitudes toward learning and inquiry, there is very little STEM instruction in pre-kindergarten classrooms. Through this initiative we aim to increase STEM instruction practices in preschool classrooms, increase children's exposure to STEM, and ultimately improve children's curiosity, knowledge, and skills in STEM.”
STEM education is often perceived as complex and challenging—too sophisticated for preschool, but Cyr and Mia Dubosarsky, co-principal investigator of Seeds of STEM and director of professional development at The STEM Education Center at WPI, contend that the fundamental core of STEM concepts is simple; problem solving.
Supported by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Services (IES), over the course of four years the Seeds of STEM initiative will involve the creation and testing of six clusters of related lessons—referred to as units—that introduce young children to the problem-solving process through popular storybooks, play, and classroom authentic problems.
"The actual subject matter of STEM in preschool classrooms will be basic," Dubosarsky said. "Lessons focus on the problem solving process, not concepts and theories. The idea is to provide fundamental knowledge of the problem solving process, to help children and teachers internalize the process and use it to address any problem they have inside and outside of school."
Seeds of STEM also aims to address the lack of people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds in STEM fields by partnering with the early education program for low-income children, Head Start of Worcester, to develop, test, and evaluate Seeds of STEM lesson plans.
An advisory board including co-principal investigators Melissa-Sue John, a specialist in developmental psychology from WPI, and Florencia Anggoro, a specialist in developmental psychology from The College of the Holy Cross, seven Head Start teachers, and early education and psychology specialists from Clark University and Quinsigamond Community College, are also aiding in curriculum development and evaluation.
Since Seeds of STEM began in August 2015, the group has developed two units of lesson plans, has been conducting those lessons in fourteen Head Start preschool classrooms since January, and has evaluated the students’ response since the end of the school year last month. According to Carlene Sherbourne, education manager of Worcester Child Development in the Head Start program, their assessment found a significant improvement in the preschool students’ comprehension of science and math concepts.
"It's exciting to see such a dramatic evolution of their understanding," Sherbourne said. "We were delighted to see that in just a short period of time using these lesson plans, we are already seeing an improvement in the extent of development teachers are able to cultivate in these young students. The teachers and the students are loving it; they’re thriving."
A pilot test of the entire curriculum is planned for September 2017 in Montachusett Opportunity Council preschools. If the lessons continue to prove to be effective, Cyr and Dubosarsky plan to seek additional grant funding to distribute the curriculum to more schools.