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How to get the ‘T’ in STEM

The world does not exist within boxes and children do not think in terms of subjects. With technology within STEM, think of it from the perspective of how the world works.
How does technology within STEM thinking look in early childhood education?

Technology is a way of doing – using tools, inventing, solving problems and making something work. How does technology within STEM thinking look in early childhood education?

Technology within STEM

Technology in STEM – Tools and machinery

The importance of technological tools within STEM

Combining a range of tools with loose parts and nature extends children’s STEM thinking. They’ll use these tools to observe, compare, measure, handle and sort. Children do not always need an adult to ask questions. They will then become aware of many valuable concepts through their own play investigations, verbalising to peers what may be new concepts as they play together. Adults should observe and reflect. Then make suggestions, model the use of a tool or ask appropriate questions to enrich children’s learning.

Tools should be freely available and easily accessible. For example, we often see magnifying glasses placed on discovery tables with the expectation that children will only need them in that space. However, we have seen magnifiers used to look closely at a strawberry during snack time, shiny paper at the art table, in the home corner to look closely at Velcro, in the book corner to look closely at an illustration of interest and outside to look at ants, grass and grains of sand.

Tools should be freely available and easily accessible.

Examples of technological tool use

Encourage the use of tools everywhere and anytime. Have them handy in a designated space so that children know where to find them when they need them.

The following are some examples of children using technology:

  • working with tools in the sandpit, digging patch or vegetable garden
  • using writing tools eg, various types of pen, markers, highlighters, crayons, pastels, paint, brushes, clipboards, a variety of types and sizes of paper
  • playing with a light box
  • using a digital camera to record their activities, thoughts or observations
  • handling construction tools eg, hand drills, saws, spirit levels, hammers, scissors
  • working with cooking utensils
  • manipulating taps and hoses
  • observing objects using magnifiers eg, a magnifying glass, microscope, binoculars
  • using measurement tools eg, various kinds of scales, rulers, jugs, cups and cylinders
  • working with ‘transfer’ tools eg, tongs, tweezers, turkey basters, syringes, forks, toothpicks, wheelbarrows and wagons
  • applying sorting tools eg, containers with compartments like egg cartons or ice cube trays possible image
  • joining things together using fastening tools eg, string, rope, twine, wire and wool, various types of tape, clips, washing pegs, clamps, glue.
Encourage the use of tools everywhere and anytime.

This list of tools might look overwhelming, but there is no need to go out spending! Allow children to be inventive. For example, an outdoor writing tool might simply be a stick in dirt. Likewise, a large metal spoon could not only be used in ‘cooking’ but also for digging, measuring, sorting, transferring, reflecting and balancing.

Allow children to be inventive.

Screen-based technology within STEM

The use of digital and screen-based tools within early childhood education is a contentious subject.

Government health recommendations suggest that children under the age of 2 should not be exposed to television or other electronic media. Also, children between 2 and 5 years should not be exposed to more than 1 hour per day (Australian Government Department of Health 2012).

These children will be the creators and consumers of future digital technology, and some argue that, for this reason, they need to have regular access.

By the time these children are teenagers, digital technology will be unrecognisable and, just as children of this age should not be “prepared for school” in developmentally-inappropriate ways, they should not be “prepared” for future IT in developmentally-inappropriate ways.

But this does not mean that children should have no access to modern electronic tools – it is about finding a balance and using appropriate tools for a child’s age and developmental stage.

When using apps, look for those adults and children interact with together. Apps that can be used as tools for learning, with adult support and active engagement, are the best use of digital technology.

Technology within STEM – Computational thinking

Computational thinking uses logic and analytical concepts to solve problems. These concepts include identifying patterns, breaking problems down into small steps, sequencing and iterative refinement of ideas and solutions (Grorer 2018).

Computational thinking should be a focus for young children, and there are many opportunities to develop these skills without screens. This means that anyone can develop the foundational skills and thinking dispositions needed to think like a computer scientist, regardless of access to digital technology. Consider activities such as:

  • puzzles
  • jumbled stories (working out the correct sequence)
  • creating an algorithm (a precise sequence of steps), eg, recipes or instructions for a task/routine
  • writing their own adventure stories with a number of possible outcomes using “if … then …” logic
  • identifying patterns (rhythms in music, movements, nature, routines, objects and words/sounds) and classifying
  • creating coding stories
  • iterative problem solving (trial and error, continuous improvement of a solution or trying a previous solution created for a similar problem in another context or situation).
Computational thinking should be a focus for young children, and there are many opportunities to develop these skills without screens.

Technology as part of STEM learning

The world does not exist within boxes or boundaries, and children do not think in terms of disciplines or subjects. When considering technology within STEM thinking, think of it from the perspective of how the world works – through systems thinking and project- or problem-based thinking. All STEM concepts are connected, interconnected and related, and have an impact on one another. Therefore, focus on the process of thinking and learning, not the product or the knowledge acquired!


For more on STEM in the early childhood context see our other STEM articles or visit the Natural Learning website.

Acknowledgement: The above adapted text and images are from STEM Detectives by Niki Buchan and Bronwyn Cron

References

About the author

Niki Buchan is senior educational consultant with Natural Learning Early Childhood Consultancy and Real World Learning Consultancy. She has lived and worked in South Africa and Scotland and has been calling Australia home since 2011. Niki has a great love for the outdoors and has been working with both adults and young children in very consultative, naturalistic and sensorial environments both indoors and outdoors for more than 35 years.

She works internationally as a conference keynote speaker, nature pedagogue, mentor and author and has been invited to work in the UK, USA, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, South Korea, Norway, Denmark and South Africa. Niki has developed a reputation as a strong advocate for children’s right to a high-quality childhood with a deep concern about children’s mental health and trauma. She trusts children as being capable and competent, including their ability to assess and take their own risks. Niki believes children have a right to regular access to nature and to have their voices heard in matters that affect them. She is considered a leading voice in promoting nature-based practice and is the author of Children in Wild Nature: A Practical Approach to Nature-based Practice and Adventurous Play: Developing Children’s Life Skills through Rich Play Experiences, and has a STEM book in the pipeline.

Niki is the mother of four adult children, an adventurer, keen photographer, seldom seen without a camera in her hand and is usually surrounded by children.

About the author

As an environmental scientist, Bronwyn is passionate about Education for Sustainability and connecting children and communities to their environment. She has spent 20 years working with schools, community groups, business and government to help them think differently; build skills and knowledge; and act towards a positive and sustainable future. Over the past 6 years, she has focused on building the capacity of early childhood educators and services to embed sustainability and support the development of STEM thinking skills in young children. She is passionate about making STEM accessible and engaging for everyone and fostering a love of STEM in children so that they are inspired by the possibilities of the future.

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