Kindergarten scientists: STEM learning in elementary school

What are the chances that an aerospace engineer knew she was excited about the field without having an early introduction to the science of flight? Or that a biomedical researcher embarked on his career in biophysics without having learned about the fundamentals of motion at a young age? Slim, data suggests.

L_3Studies show that students decide as early as second grade whether they like – and think they are good at – math and science. In other words, by age 7 or 8, they begin telling themselves that they are “good” or “bad” at solving problems. By second grade, some students have already begun to narrow their options, self-selecting out of anything science or math related.

Research shows that students are more likely to see themselves as capable and confident discoverers when they take intellectual risks early and often. As Glory Oljace, author of STEM is Elementary: How Elementary Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Prepares Students to Beat the Gaps!, states, students “cannot be expected to think critically for the first time in STEM subjects in middle school or beyond if they have not had the opportunity throughout elementary grades to experience STEM.”

L_2Introducing students to STEM learning when they are young helps them see new perspectives and discover new talents. Ultimately, it gives them the opportunity to begin a pathway toward many great career options.

This is why Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the nation’s leading provider of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, decided to bring its activity-, project-, and problem-based curriculum and professional development to elementary school. After nearly two decades of providing in-school STEM curriculum for millions of middle and high school students, PLTW reviewed data on the importance of introducing young students to STEM and was compelled to take action. This fall, PLTW LaunchTM – designed for students in grades K-5 – ‘launches’  nationwide in more than 400 schools in more than 40 states, after a successful pilot program in 40 schools across the United States this past school year. The addition of PLTW Launch completes a pipeline of STEM learning for students from kindergarten to career. Missouri is proud to have been a pilot state for the PLTW Launch program last year and even more excited to initiate PLTW Launch in approximately 35 schools this fall.

In PLTW Launch, students learn to think critically, problem solve, work together, and apply math and science concepts to everyday life. Most importantly, PLTW Launch ignites a passion and love for STEM. Launch consists of a total of 24 modules – four for each grade level – that are each approximately 10 hours of instruction. In a kindergarten lesson, for example, students design a paint brush using a variety of materials and then use the engineering design process to test and improve upon their design. In third grade, students will explore simple machines, forces, and interactions, and then use their knowledge to simulate the rescue of a zoo animal that is trapped in a ditch. PLTW Launch is designed to be flexible and customizable so that it works with any elementary school curriculum. And as with all PLTW programs, PLTW Launch includes a high-quality, three-phase professional development model that prepares teachers with the content knowledge and pedagogy to teach an activity-, project-, and problem-based curriculum.

Early exposure to STEM programs matters for all students, but it is especially important for minority and female students. Data shows a large interest and achievement gap in STEM; African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and females are seriously underrepresented in many STEM fields. With the United States aiming to regain its global leadership in talent-driven innovation, we must open doors for everyone. And it must start early. Missouri is proud to be a partner with PLTW in this effort, and we look forward to the positive effects an early, high-quality STEM education will have on Missouri’s students and future workforce.

Visit http://www.pltw.org/our-programs/launch to learn more about PLTW Launch or contact David Hosick, PLTW West-Central Regional Director for School Engagement (dhosick@pltw.org) or Ben Yates, PLTW Affiliate Program Director, Missouri University of Science & Technology (yatesbk@mst.edu).

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