STEM in preschool? It’s a hot topic among some educators and the organizations that serve them. One such organization is ASSET STEM Education, a Pennsylvania-based national education improvement nonprofit. In 2016, ASSET made a commitment to expand STEM-focused training of early learning educators nationwide. One year later, we wanted to know the impact, if any, of that commitment. We contacted Cynthia Pulkowski, executive director of ASSET STEM Education, to find out:  

Q:Tell us about ASSET STEM Education and its mission.

A: ASSET STEM Education is driven by a mission to advance teaching and learning to engage, inspire and empower all learners. ASSET’s work is premised on the belief that a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will help prepare all learners to work, live, contribute and lead in a global community.

Founded in 1994 by industry leaders and community partners, ASSET systematically improves STEM education through the following programs/services offered to all schools and educational organizations, pre-K through career:

  • Professional development: More than 100 unique courses addressing instructional best practices, skills and content knowledge that are designed and facilitated by experienced classroom teachers, vetted through a rigorous research and development process and customized to meet educator needs.
  • STEM materials leasing: Storage, shipment and refurbishment of nationally sourced, hands-on learning materials that are leased to schools and educational organizations with accompanying professional development to ensure effective implementation of these tools in classrooms and educational programs.
  • Professional services: Expert consulting to help educators and administrators align curriculum with academic standards and reform STEM teaching and learning in their schools and organizations.
  • Collaboration: Convening schools, businesses, higher education, community-based organizations and other stakeholders to increase collaboration toward STEM education improvement.

Independent evaluations have confirmed ASSET’s positive impacts on educator effectiveness and student achievement. Based on these proven results, the organization passed rigorous screenings to become a member of Change the Equation’s STEMworks national registry of evidence-based programs.

ASSET also leads the statewide Pennsylvania STEMx Network and represents the commonwealth on Battelle’s national network to foster collaboration among stakeholders, bridge gaps, test innovative approaches and scale up what works.

Today, ASSET impacts more than 2,500 educators and 150,000 students annually across 14 states and territories, including Pennsylvania, Idaho, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Virginia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Q:  In 2016, ASSET made a commitment to help bring innovative STEM content to the nation’s youngest children. What did that commitment entail, and how has it turned out? 

A: This was our Commitment to Retain Excellence: By 2021, ASSET STEM Education will significantly improve teacher excellence in STEM by increasing the annual number of pre-K-3rd grade educators served by 40 percent through teacher-designed and -facilitated professional development in STEM content, pedagogy and leadership.

Leveraging this commitment to inform program- and grant-planning opportunities, we exceeded this goal in our second year, increasing the annual number of P-3 educators served from 798 (baseline) to 1,178 (2016). With this growth, ASSET has impacted teaching and learning for more than 10,000 children ages 3-5 — in addition to those impacted through grade 3.

Based on the tremendous needs nationally for high-quality, evidence-based professional development, we will continue to build on this commitment.

Q:  Why does ASSET think that very young children should be presented STEM-related lessons?

A: High-quality early learning is associated with increased student achievement in later grades, decreased grade repetition and decreased special education placements.1 Recipients of a high-quality preschool education report higher earnings, increased job stability and fewer criminal offenses by age 40 — and are more likely to graduate from high school.2

There is a tremendous opportunity to apply these compelling findings to the current national needs and demands for competencies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Research has shown that by third grade, nearly 50 percent of U.S. students lose interest in STEM subjects3 — resulting in steadily declining performance throughout middle school and high school.

Clearly, educational systems must adapt their approach to better prepare students for tomorrow’s workforce. It is increasingly apparent that these changes must begin with the youngest learners.

Q:  What has your organization learned after making the 2016 commitment?

A: For children living in poverty, early child care and education programs can be an antidote against difficult circumstances. Through its work during the past few years, particularly with pre-K educators, ASSET has seen positive outcomes for children, educators and early childhood centers in high-needs settings.

Children are spending more time engaging in hands-on, STEM-related learning daily, compiling their own science notebooks and showing the emergence of skills related to problem solving, basic logic/reasoning, teamwork, communication and creativity.

Educators are increasing their STEM content knowledge, acquiring new strategies to facilitate high-quality early learning and demonstrating new knowledge, skills and strategies to facilitate early STEM-related learning in their center.

Participating centers are integrating standards-aligned STEM-related education programming into their curriculum.

Q:  What advice would you give to others who are promoting STEM education for very young children?

A: Community context and engagement are important. As the nation’s educational systems expand to support high-quality pre-kindergarten education for all learners, solutions must be tailored to the unique needs and circumstances facing public (e.g., school-based), private (e.g., center-based) and family (e.g., home-based) providers.

Supporting educators is vital, and it’s important to empower them with both STEM content knowledge and skills as well as confidence in their ability to utilize an inquiry-based approach that builds on young learners’ inherent curiosity.

Traditional pre-service programs develop early grade educators as “generalists” with responsibility for teaching multiple subjects. These teachers rarely specialize in science or math and often progress through their careers without adequate professional development in STEM disciplines. Consequently, the majority of early childhood educators are not confident in their abilities to teach science.4

Q: What do you think the future is for early childhood STEM, and will ASSET have a role?

A: Stakeholders are beginning to acknowledge the imperative for early interventions in STEM education through revisions to state early learning standards and national calls to action.

On April 22, 2016, the White House, in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services and Invest in US, hosted an “Early STEM Symposium” to highlight the importance of promoting active science, technology, engineering and math learning for our youngest children.

The event also celebrated a broad range of public- and private-sector leaders committed to promoting STEM learning across the country in the areas of:

  • Expanding access to early STEM learning.
  • Supporting early STEM learning in communities.
  • Supporting early educator preparation and professional development.
  • Improving state and local school systems.
  • Supporting early STEM learning through television, media and technology.
  • Supporting research to expand our knowledge base.

We believe there is an important role for ASSET in supporting early educator preparation and professional development and developing partnerships with education researchers to expand the knowledge base of practices that lead to effective teaching and improved learning.

Citations

1: Barnett, Jung, Youn; Frede, 2013

2: Schweinhart, Montie, Xiang; Barnett, 2005

3: Weinburgh, 2000

4: Trygstad, Smith, Banilower, & Nelson, 2013; National Science Foundation, 2014

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