Evaluating and Understanding STEM Teaching and Learning in Early Childhood

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Evaluating and Understanding STEM Teaching and Learning in Early Childhood

I recently visited a preschool classroom where children were working together to engineer a structure that would guide a ball into their water table (some of them were wondering if the ball would sink or float if it rolled in). Children were carefully considering design options (as engineers would); discussing how tall the block tower should be to hold the ramp, shouting numbers and phrases like “that would be not tall enough because the table is taller” (comparing and measuring like mathematicians); making predictions and documenting their observations (like scientists); and using an iPad to record their different attempts (relying on technology the way many of us in these professions do).


The White House Highlights Early STEM

A decade ago, the science and engineering topics in this activity were not a focus of conversation among early childhood educators. Recently, however, educators and policy makers across the nation are turning their attention to the importance of early science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—not only to help prepare children for future educational opportunities and careers in STEM fields, but also because we’ve learned that young children are predisposed and able to learn these important reasoning and problem solving skills that can prepare them for school more broadly.

To highlight current research on early STEM learning, as well as to uncover future research needs, the White House brought together experts to discuss what we known in each of the STEM areas.  Among other key findings, experts pointed to how powerful a predictor STEM areas, such as math, are for later school success; how understanding learning trajectories can enable significant gains in learning; how informed scaffolding on behalf of adults can help young learners understand the world in a logical manner; and how identity formation starts at an early age and shapes children’s interest and learning in STEM.

SRI Education, a division of SRI International, has been at the forefront of much of this research on early STEM. SRI’s work in early STEM can be broadly categorized into three areas that compliment and inform each other: research and development efforts, evaluations, and assessment initiatives. Several of our current projects were highlighted at the White House event.

Research and Development (R&D)

Early childhood educators are often interested and eager to integrate STEM in their classroom, however, many feel they lack the resources necessary to do so and they are faced with many competing demands. SRI’s development efforts aim to respond to this very real need by designing professional development programs and curricular resources that can be feasibly integrated in public early childhood programs serving disadvantaged communities that are often less likely to be exposed to STEM. These development efforts are based on research evidence regarding how children learn STEM, and involve partnerships with practitioners to ensure the programs and resources developed consider their needs and constraints.  

A good example of SRI’s R&D work is the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Next Generation Preschool Science (NGPS) project, collaboration with the Education Development Center (EDC) and public media producers from WGBH. NGPS involves the development of an early science curricular program that integrates preschool science learning experiences involving physical manipulatives with developmentally appropriate digital resources (science journals and apps with simulations and game components) that provide unique opportunities for socially-rich teaching and learning. The goal of the project is to promote young children’s understanding of science core ideas, such as the ones targeted in activities described earlier (force and motion) via engagement in science practices (observing and describing different things as they move on different pathways, making predictions, planning and conducting investigations ramps and pathways and recording and analyzing data).


In order to understand if and which instructional practices and types of resources yield meaningful changes in early STEM, researchers need to conduct rigorous evaluations of innovations. SRI’s formative evaluation approaches involve carefully examining how resources align to research evidence and conducting rich qualitative studies to inform design and development. Summative approaches involve mixed method designs to carefully examine both implementation and outcomes to determine not only whether programs yield desired effects, but also how and why they do or don’t.  

For example, in partnership with EDC, SRI recently completed a five-year evaluation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s (CPB) Ready to Learn initiative, which aimed to understand whether and how public media materials help low-income preschoolers develop key early math skills. In a new project, SRI is working as a research partner to Erikson Institute's Early Math Collaborative on an NSF-funded project that aims to adapt their successful early math professional development program for use in Head Start programs. Erikson and SRI researchers are documenting the specific needs and constraints of Head Start programs, adapting the program in partnership with Head Start educators, and evaluating program implementation and early math outcomes.

Assessment Methodologies

Accurate evaluation of all of these innovations is only possibly with strong measurement tools that allow valid assessment of early STEM teaching and learning. The SRI team is engaged in multiple assessment initiatives to develop measures of science instructional practices and young children’s learning of science core ideas and practices. For example, with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and in collaboration with researchers at University of Miami, SRI has contributed to the development of a computer adaptive, science assessment for young children (LENS on Science), and equated Spanish version of the assessment for use with Dual Language Learners (ENFOQUE en Ciencia).

Implications for Future Early STEM Research

While much has been done, further research is critical to understand the supports needed for ensuring that young children across the nation, regardless of their background and location, are able to learn STEM and reach their full potential. In a follow-up event hosted by the Cooney Center and New America, researchers from SRI Education joined other experts in the field to discuss how to bridge early STEM policy and practice. As the conversations continue over the coming years, SRI’s Early STEM group will strive to provide the research and resources needed to support young learners’ access to learning experience that promote learning in these important areas.