Introduction to Collected Papers from the SEED (STEM in Early Education and Development) Conference
Perhaps no two topics in the field of P-12 education have received as much attention in the decade of the 2000s as early childhood and STEM education, so it makes sense that the intersection of these two topics is particularly timely. In the spirit of responding to this convergence, the STEM in Early Education and Development (SEED) conference was held over two full days in May 2010 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Organized by the Center for Early Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (CEESTEM) at the University of Northern Iowa, the conference brought together a small group of early childhood and science teachers, administrators, professional development designers, teacher educators, science consultants, researchers, curriculum developers, policy experts, authors, representatives of state departments of education, and science museum professionals.
The goals of the conference were
- to provide an opportunity for leaders in the early childhood and/or science education community to explore critical issues facing the field of early childhood science education;
- to discuss and share work in classrooms and other settings, in research on teaching and learning, and in professional development for teachers; and
- to set an agenda for moving the field forward.
Attendees were invited to bring posters illustrating their work in science education, and these became the means by which we got to know each other. Nine invited papers were shared with the attendees prior to the conference, so that our valuable time together could be spent in dialogue about the ideas presented in the papers. Instead of formal presentations, authors spoke briefly about the ideas in their papers and in some instances shared videos of exemplary early childhood science instruction. Respondents made brief comments afterward, suggesting issues raised by the papers and setting the stage for discussions. Most of the time was spent in small- and large-group discussions. The tapes of these discussions are being transcribed for later analysis.
As might be expected, the papers revealed several areas of agreement:
- Children gain when they have “opportunities to engage in in-depth investigations of phenomena around them worthy of their knowledge and understanding” (Katz, 2010).
- Young children are sophisticated thinkers, and adults often underestimate what they can do and think about.
- Young children are constantly engaged in making meaning of their worlds.
- Children’s direct experience is key to their learning.
Although the basic ideas that we all agreed on provide a common foundation, we also explored at the conference the reality that implementation takes many forms depending on many things—people, children, interests, locale, culture, beliefs about the nature of science, the nature of learning, and the nature of child development, etc. Our hope was to learn and grow from exploring these differences, not necessarily to find one right way. We knew that if we were serious about moving the field forward, then we needed to go deeper than the level of our agreements, feel free to confront and discuss areas of disagreement, and open ourselves to the possibility of revising our own thinking. The organizers of the conference—myself, Karen Worth, Ingrid Chalufour, and Jeff Winokur—designed the conference in the hopes of creating an environment that would support and encourage deep exploration of both agreements and disagreements.
The last bullet point above, about the centrality of children’s direct experiences, begins to tap into one broad area of disagreement. That is, although we all agree that children’s experiences and efforts to make sense of the world are the beginning of science, some of us embrace the belief that it is enough to create experiences in which children are engaged in meaningful exploration of their world; that is, the goal is to get children doing science and scientific inquiry in the classroom. To this mode of thinking, curriculum is (or should be) integrated in the early years, and, therefore, it is not necessary to name the domain science. In fact, doing so could open up a can of worms in terms of standards, benchmarks, prescribed content, standardized testing, etc. (The example of what happened to literacy as a result of the No Child Left Behind legislation was brought up as an example of the danger lurking around the corner.)
However, others of us argue that science has specific elements, including content knowledge, concepts, skills, and dispositions, many of which can be developed at the early childhood level and therefore should be named and addressed explicitly. To those who advocate this approach, it is not enough to engage children in rich, meaningful experiences with content that promotes science learning; these experiences must be accompanied by reflection, talk, representation, and documentation. Making explicit the connection between science in the classroom and children’s ongoing efforts to make sense of the world is critical to building conceptual understanding. Talking about science is important. Gathering data, representing results, documenting claims and evidence, explaining reasoning—all of these are important aspects of science that young children can and therefore should be supported in doing.
Regardless of where we fall on what might be described as a continuum from an emphasis on children’s experiences to more intentional instruction in the domain commonly known as science, we all embrace the broad goal of increasing the quality and quantity of authentic science experiences and instruction in the early years. All of us could (and some of us did) recount stories of science instruction that was lacking. Reading two of the papers—Jennifer Thompson’s paper on the importance of connecting science to place and Karen Worth’s paper emphasizing the importance of children’s direct experiences, reminded me of an incident from my elementary school years that helps me connect personally with the importance of approaching science from the perspective of children’s sense making. I remember being taught that moss grows on the north sides of trees. Our teacher told us that if we were ever lost in the forest, we would be able to tell which direction was north and so could find our way. Apart from wondering how on earth knowing which direction was north could possibly help me, I also wondered: “How do the trees know which direction is north?” It is unfortunate that I did not feel free to ask this question in class. It might have led to any number of interesting investigations.
One of the tangible results of the SEED conference has been the creation of the National Association for the Education of Young Children Early Childhood Science Education Interest Forum. Our hope is that the creation of this forum, as well as the publication of these papers from the SEED conference, will contribute to focused efforts to increase the quality and quantity of authentic science experiences and instruction in the early years.
The STEM in Early Education and Development conference was supported by NASA under award #NNX09AQ27G.
Katz, Lilian G. (2010, May). STEM in the early years. Paper presented at STEM in Early Education and Development Conference, Cedar Falls, IA.
Thompson, Jennifer. (2010, May). Science and Alaskan cultural connections in the early childhood classroom. Paper presented at STEM in Early Education and Development Conference, Cedar Falls, IA.
Worth, Karen. (2010, May). Science in early childhood classrooms: Content and process. Paper presented at STEM in Early Education and Development Conference, Cedar Falls, IA.