How Is Your Service Embracing The ‘Big Change’ In STEM?

Educators need to get more savvy about the concepts of Science, Technology, Energy and Maths (STEM).

But chances are your service is already well on the way.

Educa spoke to two early childhood specialists who presented at the recent ECA Live Wires Forum about technology. Anita L’Enfant (yes that’s her real surname – it’s French for ‘the child’) has 25+ years classroom experience spanning early childhood to tertiary education. She sees educators as “learner enablers” and through her consultancy inspires them to harness innovative approaches and supporting technologies. Meanwhile, Daniel Donahoo, is a former early childhood educator who consults in the sector about technology and has authored and co-written books about it. He co-founded Deeper Richer, which builds digital learning environments.

“Encouraging curiosity, investigation and interest in STEM is something already fostered in early childhood. It’s about trying to get children – and educators – familiar and confident around those concepts,” says early childhood STEM specialist, Anita L’Enfant.

“It’s not about changing everything you’ve got in your service. It’s the tweaks you can do, the little innovations to what’s already happening,” she says.

The big change in STEM

But, says L’Enfant, the big change is integration of STEM, which is its driving force. STEM gives us the opportunity to bring Science, Mathematics and Technology together in a process and the process is where the ‘E’ for engineering comes in.

“In short, it’s the idea of something planned, then created, then you review it and improve that cycle. In terms of education, we’ve known that as project-based learning, challenged-based learning, and inquiry.

“However, from a STEM perspective, the ‘E’ is the most crucial. It’s that process and integration of the areas of science, technology and maths within the process of creation and development. It really gives the tools to get into something new and innovative. So you’d ask the children ‘How could I make that better and what could I do about it?” says L’Enfant.

What integration means for STEM in your service

You can break down the process this way, she says:
• Identify the problem you’re keen to solve with the children
• Talk with them about it and plan a solution together
• Do it – carry out your test or create your solution
• Examine your solution together – did it work, did it meet your expectations?
• Consider how you can make it better or different

In addition, you can expand it further by taking a video of the children learning and sharing it with parents on Educa’s portal.

“It’s great evidence of learning – parents and kids love to watch this,” says L’Enfant.

Technology – an ogre or opportunity?

“Technology is a great way for educators to model good learning. If you’ve never had a go at using a bot, do it with your kids and show them what it’s like to be a good learner using trial and error. It provides an example of an authentic learning experience,” she says.

While mainstream and social media debates continue about restricting young children from technology, L’Enfant counters by saying this can hamper children’s progress.

“Technology is part of children’s lives anyway. They don’t know life without tech so we need to give them words, context, a framework and familiarity. The risk of children being kept away from it is that they don’t learn to manage it themselves – how not to be overwhelmed by it. For instance, they don’t learn their signs of fatigue when looking at a screen – that’s the biggest risk.”

If we as educators say ‘no’ to technology such as apps or tablets in our service there’s a danger that we do a disservice to the children, L’Enfant argues.

The tech playroom

L’Enfant and fellow early childhood technology specialist Daniel Donahoo drum this message home to educators in the ‘tech playroom’ sessions they’ve run for Live Wires. Through the workshops, they directly link STEM ideas to the outcomes in the Early Years Learning Framework so educators can clearly understand the connection.

Donahoo says: “Learning is just a continuum and technology is part of it. We need to use it as a tool. In early learning environments, we don’t use technology as a babysitter or respite tool as parents may use it. We use it to support children’s learning and development in playful ways. It is part of the play-based learning environment and the tech playground demonstrates this. It is where the real world and digital world meet.”

“For example, when I test apps in a service, even if the client wants me to test it with one child at a time, that won’t happen. Children use technology in social and playful ways. It’s how the technology should work. You need to design the experience to allow for that. The picture of a child sitting watching TV or a video on a phone, that isn’t the child choosing or designing that experience. That experience is designed and constructed by adults for children.”

His approach isn’t to necessarily suggest apps for early childhood educators, but rather to encourage them to ask “How do I best use this app for the learning aims for this child?”

He supports L’Enfant about bringing tech into early childhood education services.

“Shouldn’t we focus on raising young children to be more respectful in an online environment? What does it look like to teach children aged three to five years to be kind, generous and polite using technology? There is no investment there. Consider how much money is spent on anti-cyber bullying training for older children and adults who can’t manage in a social media environment. Some of this can be used to help young children develop stronger social and emotional skills related to technology use.”

Allowing children agency

Donahoo talks about technology giving children agency to create their own stories and reflections of the world.

“There are apps for mobile phones and tablets that allow children who are two or three years old to compose their own music, apps to help them make their own picture books or improve their problem-solving. Thanks to the mobile phone, children can now take photos of their own artwork or play experience. They can be the observers and not just the ones being observed. When considered in this way, we can use technology in ways that support children’s rights and their capacity to be participants in their world,” he says.

His advice to educators?

“When it comes to STEM and technology, you need to do and behave the same way children do. Give yourself permission to play, explore and ask questions. You will come up with good answers and good ways to use the tech with children that supports them in healthy ways and supports their learning.”

Useful link:
Early Learning STEM Australia, a pilot project being run by the University of Canberra