STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) subjects are being rejuvenated in schools. Many of us remember them as uninteresting, unfathomable and seemingly unrelated to anything we needed to know in the real world of our daily lives. Fortunately for us, some “nerdy” types found them interesting enough to imagine, explore and create new possibilities that improve our lives in countless ways.
I’ve previously written about the importance of making space for STEM in early childhood classrooms. In this post I talk with early childhood educator Narinda Sandry who is spreading the word and showing even STEM-averse educators how they can “deliver STEM experiences to every student, every week, in class and easily in an overcrowded curriculum.”
Narinda is a teacher, curriculum writer and advisor. She spent many years teaching in early childhood classrooms, wrote educational materials for the Queensland Museum, and curriculum documents to support implementation of the Australian Curriculum. She now shares her combined love of learning, passion for early childhood education, and interest in STEM subjects, with teachers through her new STEMtastic project promoting “STEM education for every student, every week, easily.”
Hello, Narinda, and welcome to readilearn.
Absolute pleasure to talk with you and your readers Norah.
Narinda, tell us a little about why you feel STEM education is so important in early childhood and all classrooms.
The world we live in is changing, faster now than it ever has before. It is predicted that many of the jobs we know now will be either non-existent or at least disrupted in the near future. Think about the changes in the way we work now, even to just 20 years ago. On a weekly basis people are developing exciting technologies which save more lives, and creating new machines which do more amazing things.
But future generations are also facing the most globally ‘wicked’ problems they have ever had to deal with. Things like vastly longer life spans, high levels of world obesity, exploding populations, pollution on a mass scale and unprecedented amounts of waste products. Put this highly exciting, fast paced society together with the challenges of modern life and we are going to need an innovative and adaptable workforce to maintain our ‘lucky’ country.
Worldwide, it is recognised that sciences and technologies, in the broadest sense, improve living standards, make businesses more productive, drive economic growth, improve health outcomes and grow jobs in new fields. Governments and industry will increasingly look to scientific and technological knowledge and skills to meet our local needs.
We need to make the most of opportunities that present themselves and ensure that our children are the ones they employ. It is important to encourage our children to engage with science, technologies and maths, to be innovators, and to not lose their curiosity about the world. STEM provides us with a way of doing that.
Sadly, Australian students are turning away from science, technology and maths subjects. The National Scientific Statement, released last week, found “participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian high schools was declining, with enrolments in these subjects at the lowest level in 20 years”. It also reported that performance in these STEM subjects had slipped and if the decline continued, “Australia may be unable to supply the skills required for the future workforce” (science.gov.au/NSS pg 11).
So how can STEM help?
We all know that so much of a child’s brain development occurs before they are 5, so STEM in the Early Years is about creating the richest experiences we can. Fortunately, children’s play, natural curiosity and wonderment are an easy launch pad for STEM experiences, but the interactions of adults are crucial. The educators must be tuned into the types of questions they ask and conversations they have.
STEM provides new ways to think about the choices of materials offered, how experiences are set up to cause innovative use of materials, and how to pick up on those rich possibilities that come from children’s play and their questions. Like so many things, teachers (and parents) need the opportunities to learn and refine these skills and attitudes and we just need to keep this interest alive as they grow up.
In the primary school context, there are 2 key arguments for STEM and STEAM (includes the Arts). Firstly, is that these lessons explicitly teach learners how to combine the knowledge from the individual subject areas and apply it to real world contexts in innovative ways. It’s not about getting correct answers but about learning how to use knowledge and processes to design and evaluate possible solutions. This is what young people are going to need to be able to do in their highly dynamic future.
The second main reason for offering STEM experiences is that they are engaging and exciting and make brilliant springboards and contexts for other lessons being taught. Building a catapult to shoot a pom pom the farthest distance starts as a design challenge, brings in systems engineering, then leads to fair-testing in science and measurement in maths. So STEM puts some zing back into the often mechanical abstract curriculum which ‘silos’ subjects and appears unrelated to a young person’s life.
As a nation we really need to be getting as many students as possible excited about STEM so they keep positive attitudes about studying and working in these fields. This is where Australia’s workforce and economic growth will be the strongest and most exciting.
Narinda, although STEM education is being strongly promoted now, many teachers are still reluctant to get involved. Why do you think this is so?
The teaching of STEM excites many teachers, but it also gives rise to feelings of ‘where do I start?’, ‘there’s no money for the resources’, ‘how does it improve student performance?’ and ‘yet another thing for teachers to deliver!’
Many schools offer some STEM experiences for some students, but not regularly for all students. Our mission is to make weekly STEM experiences valuable, easy and affordable for ALL students.
You seem determined to convince teachers that STEM can be easily incorporated into their busy class programs with over-crowded curricula. How do you suggest they do this?
Time in a classroom is a very precious resource. Only 13% of a child’s total time each year is spent in class and this is without taking out time for illness, holidays in school term, fire drills, lock downs and the like. So the last thing teachers and students need is an additional demand taking just some kids out of the classroom.
Some schools have ‘maker spaces’ which are special rooms to take students to for STEM activities, but this then requires timetabling and more time lost as we walk to the room, plus they are expensive to set up and maintain. So STEMtastic keeps it simple and doable for all.
We offer reusable, individual student kits in a bag, and a booklet of challenges which align explicitly with the Australian curriculum for each year level and consequently what teachers are already teaching in their classrooms. Each challenge is designed to take only about 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the age and abilities of the students, and their familiarity with working this way.
Because of their brevity, the challenges can be used as an alternative to brain gym, silent reading, independent group activity, an exciting day starter or lesson introduction. They are designed to reignite student’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder whilst still working towards the common goal of improving student performance. Weekly STEM experiences can help to combat the stresses of data demands for teachers and students in which learning has become a dry mechanical wheel.
Our goal is to make STEM teaching easy to do with the whole class at the same time; EVERY week, for EVERY child, in an EASY way. We designed reusable individual student kits to help teachers bring STEM into their classroom
Tell us a bit about your kits, please, Narinda, and why you made them.
We were alarmed at the cost and perishability of materials currently commercially available for maker spaces and stem kits. Kits advertised as ‘class kits’ only really provide materials for a group of 8 students. This is why we developed the STEMtastic kits.
Our kits are ‘maker spaces in a bag’ and contain everything a student needs to create some amazing objects and systems. There are 35 different component types with a wide range of properties and purposes. No glue, scissors or sticky tape are required because students are taught to use a variety of other joining methods. The kit includes a tray too, that keeps the contents together.
The teacher notes suggest and explain many challenges linked directly to the Australian curriculum for Science, Technologies (design), Maths and where possible the Arts. Teachers choose the challenges that fit with their current teaching and student needs.
Could you explain how your STEM challenges work and perhaps share an idea of an activity, so we can get an idea of how easy it is.
Sure. The first 10 challenges are designed for first-time users of the reusable STEMtastic kits and support the staggered introduction of new components and techniques.
The remaining challenges are organised into year levels and a general sequence in terms of getting to know the materials and techniques, the difficulty of the challenges and the inquiry and thinking skills required. Once familiar with the kit and safe work practices however, the challenges can be conducted in any order.
Most challenges are designed to take between 20 and 40 minutes, though this varies with the complexity of the challenge and student skills. Not every part of the design and engineering process is possible in each session, so we have tried to focus on just one part per challenge; for example, the sequencing of steps, the drawing or a plan, the evaluation of its success.
What age group are the challenges most suitable for?
We have challenges for all primary year levels from Prep to Year Six.
Narinda, if you could share just one message with teachers about STEM education, what would it be?
Our main belief is that STEM is essential for EVERY child not just the selected or interested few and it should be happening EVERY week not just occasionally. STEM can be the vehicle to bring some integration back to a compartmentalised curriculum. But teachers are already pushed beyond their limits, so I wanted to make it easy for teachers to engage in STEM, in their classroom, without the need of a fancy ‘maker space’.
Narinda, I believe you worked with an award-winning science teacher to develop these materials.
That’s right. I worked with my sister Rebecca Johnson who is an award-winning science teacher and also an author of science based books. In 2015, she won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Teaching Science. Rebecca’s passion for inspiring children to take an interest in science is reflected in the wonderful collection of books she has written, many of which also have links to the Australian Curriculum.
Thank you, Narinda Sandry, for talking with us about your new STEMtastic project. We support your desire to promote STEM education in schools. STEM makes school interesting for both teachers and children and educates our future generations of problem solvers and innovators. We wish you success with your project.
Thanks for having me.
You can contact Narinda via firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Narinda is a colleague and friend. I am promoting her work because I believe in its value. I receive no other reward than that of helping to inspire more teachers to include STEM into their class programs, as Narinda says, easily, weekly and affordably.
I have previously interviewed her collaborator Rebecca Johnson. You can read those posts here: about her Insect Series and her award-winning book Rainforest Camp from the Juliet Nearly a Vet series. She has just released a wonderful STEM based series about Dinosaurs which also include a wide variety of scientific and math literacy types.
Trying to think of a way of saying “Thank you” to an early childhood educator? A readilearn subscription makes a special gift to let early childhood teachers know their work is appreciated. Contact me for details.
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