Where do we begin? Perspectives on STEM for TK

As a Transitional Kindergarten (TK) teacher I find myself in a common quandary in relation to classroom Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) activities. Administrators, parents, advocates, and policy makers expect more STEM in our 21st century classrooms and our district is participating in a special initiative, providing my classroom with iPads, Google Chromebooks and various programmable robots, STEM learning kits, and resources. Related to these and other pressures I often ask “How much STEM is recommended for 4 and 5 year olds?” and “What kind of activities, devices, applications, and special training should I incorporate into my TK assignment?” Review of a few scholarly articles provides a starting point.

The white paper The Power of Discovery: STEM2, 2013-14 Report by Vandell and others at the University of Irvine is a technical summary of data for a STEM-based afterschool program. This program analyzed the different levels and types of staff beliefs, staff development programs, resources, and student activities in order to gain an understanding of what is effective practice, leading to student success in school, especially in STEM-related subjects. While it was limited in its focus to an initiative called, The Power of Discovery, part of the California After School Network, it has valuable data that informs practice of teachers of early childhood and school-age children. The fact that large funding programs have been provided and that there are quality research programs done in itself demonstrates the emphasis being put on STEM.

One of the key findings suggests that quality STEM instruction can lead to future gains in student motivation and beliefs. For this to take place is critical that STEM “be planned in a careful manner in an effort to appropriately challenge each student.” (Lowe Vandell, et al. 28) Various, effective, learning strategies to support differentiation and the appropriate individual levels of instruction for each student are recommended. When the learning activities are engaging and cognitively stimulating they can “foster the development of students’ interest” in STEM. (ibid, v).  In one example scenario provided in the report a program leader was leading children in a digital recording project but the instruction was not well planned and was outside the students’ zone of proximal development. It showed the need for more carefully planned and resources more rightly aligned to the students.

A very important factor is successful STEM programs is training and support for the staff.  When teachers had more competence and believed more strongly in STEM, for example, the result was “higher levels of activity challenge and student engagement.” (ibid 28) This is what you would expect to the be case. As teachers had more agility and ability to guide the STEM activities, the students were more engaged and stimulated to go deeper into the concepts.

A third summary that I noticed is that parent involvement is very important. The staff learned to communicate better with the students’ teachers and parents, including events and information about their activities. This resulted in students  learning STEM concepts better, according to survey data. “These findings suggest that helping staff build bridges of communication amongst themselves as well as with teachers and parents can foster adaptive gains in student outcomes directly.” (ibid 29)

Early STEM Learning and the Roles of Technologies by Pasnick and Hupert was right on the mark in helping me focus in on what is needed in Transitional Kindergarten STEM programs. Focusing on children aged birth to eight, they are summarizing research with the goal of decreasing inequities that lead to gaps in STEM achievement. They asked the key question: “How will early learning educators be prepared to teach STEM topics in developmentally appropriate ways?” (Pasnick and Hupert 3) They also make conclusions I agree with: “Technology tools, even the best-designed ones, can never replace human interaction or good teaching.” (ibid 4)
For children to be successful in STEM there must be a strong component of social interaction where language and STEM concepts can be developed. Pasnick and Hupert note on page 5:  “There is a growing body of evidence that a 1:1 device-to-child approach is not the way to support young children’s learning (Blackwell, Lauricella, Wartella, Robb, & Schomburg, 2013). Instead, technologies, such as touchscreen tablets, are best integrated when children use them in pairs or small groups, which are consistent with a learning-centers structure.” (5) These findings affirm that TK classrooms need to be driven by the dialogue between students, teachers, teacher’s aides, and parents and not by the particular STEM activities or devices being used.
Teachers play an ever important, “essential” role in the STEM environment. To name a few, they are “mediators of digital experience,” direct the roles of different leaners through dialogue, effectively apply STEM pedagogy, and stay current on how to apply STEM concepts in their local community. (ibid 6) It is the case that STEM teachers have a high level of expectations and need a good deal of support.

I’ve have wondered about how much digital screen time is appropriate for young children and have seen the limits of TK students developmental ability to interact with a device. Pasnick and Hupert conclude we should not be concerned about this as much, but instead should be “focusing on the importance of providing young children with equal opportunities to have access to high-quality educational technologies that support STEM learning.” (ibid 10) What a refreshing change of focus for me, to move my planning and pedagogy into the STEM learning domain, instead of thinking of “screentime” as a separate item.
Both of the articles have moved me along in my thinking about STEM in the TK environment that I am in. I am challenged to realize that a great deal of related research has been done already. Teaching with technology is not an end in itself, but a part of a greater process developing rapidly in education. There is a growing body of knowledge about what kinds of activities serve as preparation for student success in science, technology, engineering and math courses and careers. If we are going to be a part of it, we cannot just have students exposed to it, they have to be guided to go deeper.

At this point in my development I am asking further questions to guide me in a more extensive set of research. What STEM strategies best compliment the developmentally appropriate practices of TK students? I would begin to build a set of winning activities, units, and integrated lessons in my TK pedagogy tool chest, rather than just learning as I go. What ways can we, in our local context, promote access to STEM for all students? I see from the research that I have reviewed that there needs to buy in from everyone involved that we are a STEM program. Finally, what resources do we need to make this program really work well? I have some ideas about where we go forward from our initial investment, but more planning is needed before we go deeper.

Works Cited

Lowe Vandell, Deborah, et al. (2014) The Power of Discovery: STEM2, 2013-14 Report. University of California, Irvine. Retrieved October 16, 2016, from http://faculty.sites.uci.edu/childcare/files/2014/11/STEMReport_August2014.pdf

Pasnik, S., & Hupert, N. (2016). Early STEM Learning and the Roles of Technologies. Waltham, MA: Education Development Center, Inc. Retrieved October 16, 2016, from http://ltd.edc.org/sites/ltd.edc.org/files/EarlySTEMTechWhitePaper.pdf

The Power-of-Discovery: STEM Initiative? (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2016, from http://powerofdiscovery.org/power-discovery-stem-initiative


Worlds of Wonder

We are privileged to have Dash and Dot from the Wonder Workshop in our TK classroom. This video is a brief introduction. In the first part she tells about some of the ways they help us begin programming.

See the LUSD #icancode initiative website for more details on our curriculum.


Let’s get coding

This video is in line with the goal of our #icancode iPad initiative.


Watch out. Research shows screentime can be a real brain drain.

Dimitri Christakis explains his research in this TEDx lecture “How TV Affects the Brains of Young Children” His study shows that too much exposure at a young age can be detrimental to the brain’s development. Constructive, interactive play and exploration literally helped build the brain in their study. “We need more real time play today.”  Children, at young ages, need more time playing with real objects and plenty of social interaction to help develop their brains and language.

Fun on order

Reclaimed Wood Distressed Wire Frame ~ SOLD!
Reclaimed Wood Distressed Wire Frame ~ SOLD!

I had my third order for an Etsy creation. My store at https://www.etsy.com/shop/TKTinkerSpace is just a little shop but I’m finding that it’s a lot of fun to create with purpose. It’s a whole different story when you have to make something to meet a person’s specific order than it is to just create for fun.

This experience makes me think about the difference between “crafts” in the classroom and “making with purpose.” I want to create activities for children that help them make things by applying STEAM standards, not just keep them busy. As I gear up into the next school year this is on my mind. I hope I can share some of the enthusiasm for making and make it part of our process.

Summer blaze

Tinkering for the Etsy shop
Tinkering for the Etsy shop

Who said summer break is supposed to be a time of rest? I’m thankful for a number of opportunities I’ve had to grow and stretch this summer.

  • enrolled in more courses towards my certificate in Early Childhood Education to help me in my role as a TK teacher
  • received notification that I’m accepted into the K-2 #iCanCode iPad STEAM Initiative with my school district so I’ll be getting some special training and a set of iPads for my classroom
  • taking a course on the letters the Apostle Paul wrote while in prison (the Prison Epistles)  in the School of Advanced Leadership Training through Hope University and Church of the Servant King where I serve as an overseer.
  • developed my Etsy store with help from my family and friends and ventured into online selling with ebay
  • continuing to develop my skills on the piano (right now just a hobby)
  • playing my sax with brothers and sisters over at http://newmtcalvary.org/ where we are seeking to model lives of racial reconcilation

A new space for tinkering

A recent TK TinkerSpace project.
A recent TK TinkerSpace project.

Introducing TK TinkerSpace

My new Etsy store TK TinkerSpace has been a the result of a new idea on an old theme. For me it is the convergence of various streams in my life. When I was growing up my father always had a woodshop where I was allowed to tinker. I invented many different useful and useless little contraptions. As I got older I earned the privilege of using more powerful (dangerous) tools. I remember when I turned 12 and got my first toolbox with a powerdrill (that I still have today).

Fast-forward to today when I find myself in a place where I can share the joy of inventing with children and you find me opening up an online shop. I came upon the idea through different people. Recently I attended a one-day workshop for Transitional Kindergarten teachers. The presenters were sharing their enthusiasm for the new “Makers” movement sweeping through the education community.  YES! We are now encouraging the infusion of hands-on, project-based learning and technology-infused inventing in our classrooms, exposing children at young ages to the kind of tinkering I was a part of growing up.

Shop areaI have already been a teacher for over 20 years but this new era is probably the most exciting I’ve seen. The new “Next Generation Science Standards” (NGSS), Preschool Learning Foundations (CPLF), and the Common Core (CCSS) are just a beginning. I approach the new adventure I’m involved in with optimism. I hope to help other teachers and families by making toys, games, and materials they can use to encourage little tinkers, inventors and entrepreneurs.

Art Bot Fun

This is a sample of the little drawing robots I created with very inexpensive items. The students were involved in design and testing and as you can see they had a lot of fun with the little drawing robots.

The motor is from a dollar store toothbrush. The markers from the same store. The cup is a used, but washed cup. The lighted candle in a set from the other dollar store. I got the batteries and leads on Amazon. Hot glued the parts together and soldered the leads onto the motor.

Hex Nano Bots

These little HEXbug nano robots are tons of fun! I built a simple course for them with PVC that I cut in half. This center was under $30 and very engaging.

How do robots help people

Robotics Unit, Week 3

This week we will take a special look at the big question, “How do robots help people?”

  • How do they help people with disabilities?
  • How do they help with very difficult jobs?
  • Can they do jobs for less money than people?

Here’s an example of one video story: