Why preschool is the best time to spark an interest in STEM

Why preschool is the best time to spark an interest in STEM

Research shows, for children to grow into the code writers, engineers and app developers of the future, they need to be introduced to STEM skills by primary school. Our research shows it can – and should – start in preschool.

Monash’s Dr Sarika Kewalramani reveals the results of a recent pilot study looking at the use of robots in kindergarten.

Early childhood is the ideal time to introduce STEM-based play. Robotics and coding games can be used by educators in adaptive and age-appropriate ways. Like all technology, it should enhance rather than replace classroom learning.

Using scientific inquiry as the basis for lessons allows children to express, tinker, experiment, interact and problem-solve within their playful social learning environment.

There are a number of ways teachers can foster scientific exploration and to create STEM-based play using simple bots. These are ideas are based on a unit of inquiry about ''How we express ourselves". Robotics play fits into this unit very nicely.

Promote children’s creativity and practice coding using simple bots

Any activity using bots should encourage children’s creative thinking skills, allow them to exercise control over the tech-toys and practice coding. Simple battery-operated toys like Bee-Bots can be used.

  • Using trial and error, children program the Bee-Bot to perform different tasks. It’s a great opportunity for children to estimate things.
    For example, how many times will your Bee-Bot need to go forward to reach the farm and beach in their city?
  • Ask children to design their own story for the Bee-Bot’s adventures to encourage creativity. Children can draw a story map, and use images to illustrate it.
  • Promote group work and set up problem-solving challenges.
    For example, robots can dive into the ocean to find the treasure or climb up a mountain without going into a volcanic area.
Two children build robots together
Two children build robots together

Use iPad controlled robots

Teachers can use iPad controlled robots as the basis for a lesson on engineering and electronics.

In our pilot research project, children were encouraged to use Coji, an iPad controlled robot that can walk, talk and show emotions on the face, along with electronic magnetic block kits, called littleBits.

Children were encouraged to make their own obstacle courses using blocks, ramps, tunnels and bridges for Coji. Some wanted to make a robot city for the robot family to live in, and built a café, farm, beach in their city.

The problem of how to construct circuits using littleBits was scaffolded by the teacher. The children were able to make traffic lights, horns for the bus, robots with moving wheels using Lego and the magnetic littleBits.

Creative thinking was prompted by asking, “I wonder if can make mining robots and they hammer and look for treasure?” Such questioning sparked children’s curiosity, leading them to attach a hammer or digger to the littleBits parts so the robot was ready to work on their chosen planet.

Robot town
An iPad-controlled littleBits space rover robot

A dramatic story about saving the planet

Use a problem that children wish to solve, based around their environment or another topic/provocation to encourage children’s problem solving skills.

In our pilot project, children wondered how they needed to save the planet and the robots if their batteries started to die. This sparked their problem solving skills to reducing light energy, use solar panels and energy from the sun. Teacher-led open-ended inquiry created the conditions for children’s thinking, drawing experiences from their everyday world. Some made connections to the past unit of inquiry on ‘Saving the Planet’ and suggested constructing solar panels to power the robots living in their robot city.

Sample vignette from a drama session

Provocation:

The robots need more power! The robots have run out of power. They need batteries. Put the batteries in, batteries are running out.

The earth is getting sicker and sadder. What’s the solution?

Robots meet to solve the problem of needing more power. Dig more coal! Do we want to dig more coal?

Children's solution:

Robots boo the big boss of the coal mine. Robots get solar power and put panels on robot city roof.

The children become the sun, and the sun shines on the panels.

Children made their own littleBits circuits to make the solar panels work and save electricity in their robot city.

Integrating everyday science concepts

Teachers can use everyday phenomena/concepts, such as how the body works and how it processes food, as a basis for a STEM unit of inquiry.

Here's an example of an inquiry-based unit.

Sample unit of inquiry

Unit title: How the body works and how it processes food
Duration: 3 weeks

Notice and wonder

Begin with a brain-storming session. Each member of the class formulates a question that they would like answered.

  • What do I know about my body?
    "I vomit when I get sick in the tummy."
  • What do I want to find out?
    "Why do I vomit anyway?"
  • What do I know now?
    "My body is trying to get rid of the germs."
Teacher planning

Children can demonstrate knowledge of their body parts, providing scientific reasoning and questioning about how their body works.

Expand on their questions. Ask children what they think happens to the food they eat. Where does it go? Where do they think their breakfast or lunch may be in their bodies?

This will lead to some funny comments and children may get a good laugh out of where they think their food is, but it will make them stop and think. The purpose of this activity is for children to become curious about their digestive systems and become interested in learning the content.

Learning intention

For children to:

  • Investigate how the body is getting stronger and understand why I can do lots of thing now I couldn't when I was a baby.
  • Understand the different parts of the body and their function e.g bones help us stay strong, hold our muscles and help our body move.
  • Use technology tools and skills to reinforce and extend classroom concepts and activities.

VEYLDF Learning Evidence Marker

  • use reflective thinking to consider why things happen and what can be learnt from these experiences
  • participate in a variety of rich and meaningful inquiry-based experiences

Kindergarten Level – Foundation (ACARA)

  • Use the example of how living things grow, change and have offspring similar to themselves
  • Participate in guided investigations, including making observations using the senses, to explore and answer questions
  • Respond to and pose questions, and make predictions about familiar objects and events
  • Encourage curiosity and enthusiasm from children
  • Manipulate objects and experiment with cause and effect, trial and error, and motion
Explore, observe and investigate – prior knowledge
  • During an extended research process along with their teacher, children are exposed to and uncover many interesting facts about how their body works now and compare it to when they were babies.
  • Teacher can use augmented reality iPad apps, such as Anatomy 4D, with bone structure depictions.
    This can spark children’s interest about abstract concepts such as food digestion. Using pedagogically reasoned and age appropriate digital tools.
  • Children can engage in a dramatic play hospital corner throughout this investigation to practice what they have been researching and learning about their body. This play process often raising questions and leading to the discovery of new knowledge. Consulting with peers is also a key social and information sharing element of this learning process.
Reflect, review and extend the investigation

Discuss what happens to food items such as proteins, fats, oils in our bodies.

What will you plan next to consolidate or extend this learning?

  • You could use Bee-Bots to navigate through the digestive system or human body map.
    Children can either make their own maps or you can download free printable maps from totschooling.net.
Critical vocabulary

Some critical vocabulary to keep in mind.

  • Mouth: Where digestion begins.
  • Stomach: This is place where food is broken down into a pulpy liquid. It is very acidic.
  • Small intestine: The long tube is where the food mixture is broken down even more so your body can absorb all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
  • Large intestine: The fatter, shorter tube is where the food mixture is broken down even more, moisture is removed, and anything your body does not need passes through.

Resources

littleBits electronics Inc - hands-on kits, unit plans, guides and blog.

Free printables for kindergarten from totschooling.net.

References

Bers, M. U. (2008). Blocks to robots: Learning with technology in the early childhood classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bers, M. U., Seddighin, S., & Sullivan, A. (2013). Ready for robotics: Bringing together the T and E of STEM in early childhood teacher education (pdf).

Department of Education and Training. (2017). Illustrative maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10.

Early Years Learning Framework (2018). Learning outcome planning cycle resource: Children are confident and involved learners (pdf).

Edwards, S., Straker, L., & Oakey, H. (2018). Early Childhood Australia: Statement on young children and digital technologies (pdf).

Fleer, M. (2015). Science for children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fleer, M. (2018). Digital animation: New conditions for children’s development in play‐based setting. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(5), 943-958.

Kewalramani, S., Havu-Nuutinen, S. (2019). Preschool Teachers’ Beliefs and Pedagogical Practices in the Integration of Technology: A Case for Engaging Young Children in Scientific
Inquiry
. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 15(12).