TK TinkerSpace

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

Pasnik, S., & Hupert, N. (2016). Early STEM Learning and the Roles of Technologies. Waltham, MA: Education Development Center, Inc. Retrieved October 16, 2016, from

The Power-of-Discovery: STEM Initiative? (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2016, from


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