Early childhood STEM stakeholders discussing pressing challenges of equity.

On Monday, December 4, 2017, the Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative convened its first Affinity Group meeting, focusing on early childhood STEM education. The meeting, held in partnership with the TEC Center at Erikson Institute, brought together approximately 50 stakeholders in the field, including funders, program providers, cultural institutions, libraries, Chicago Public Schools, higher education, and community-based organizations. The meeting was facilitated by Dr. Liz Lehman from University of Chicago STEM Education, Michelle Rabkin from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and Emily Simon from Chicago Public Schools Office of Early Childhood Education.

What is an Affinity Group? The Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative convenes stakeholders to discuss and elevate conversation as it relates to the following core ideas:

  1. Identifying best practices in Chicago, nationally, or both.
  2. Understanding the pressing challenges in early STEM education, as they relate to inequity.
  3. Determining what success might look like we we work together to address challenges.

Early childhood STEM education is a critical component to the learning landscape and provides the foundation for student and family engagement and participation in science. Issues of equity and access are critical within this field.

Teacher professional development providers discuss some of the big challenges to equity from their perspective.

Discussion Questions:

To launch into the discussion, participants worked within sectors (e.g. educators, school leaders/administrators, community-based organizations, professional development providers) to discuss the following question : Based on your sector’s expertise, what are some challenges to equity in early childhood STEM education in Chicago? The strength-based framing of this question is emblematic of the Chicago STEM Pathway’s Cooperative approach to working both systemically, and at the community level with neighborhood stakeholders. We believe the expertise exists in the community itself and must be recognized, valued, and amplified to effect sustainable change.

Stakeholders then moved into cross-sector conversations, using the following three prompts to guide their discussion: What is success for you or your organization? What could success look like for an Early Childhood Affinity Group? How might we increase the impact of our work in Early Childhood STEM through collective work in this Affinity Group?

Emerging Trends from Affinity Group Discussions:

Cross-sector brainstorming: What might success look like if we all worked together to tackle issues of equity?

The need for sustainable and quality caregiver/teacher STEM professional development was a common theme identified across the sector groups. Because so many early childhood educators are required to be generalists, there is not often a specific emphasis on STEM skills and activities. Other challenges that surfaced included teacher and community engagement in seeing the value of STEM at the early childhood level and resources to deliver high quality programs and professional development, such as funding.

Within the cross-sector groups, recommendations for how we, as a collective, can move the needle on equity in early childhood STEM education included: 1.) Enabling more professional development for more educators, especially in communities that are underserved by STEM programming; 2.) Connect research that is happening at higher education institutions with the practice of the Affinity Group members; 3.) Amplify the power of our work by leveraging existing platforms, such as conferences, to tell the impact of STEM education at the early childhood level.

Report on Early Childhood STEM Education:
A recent report entitled Early STEM Matters: Providing High-Quality STEM Experiences for All Young Learners, outlines four guiding principles for high-quality STEM experiences for early childhood.

  1. Adult supervision is necessary to help guide children through their STEM experiences and support their natural curiosity.
  2. Discussion and visual representation, such as drawing and writing, must be part of STEM education.
  3. Building adults’ confidence in STEM concepts is important to shaping children’s own attitudes towards STEM.
  4. Culture, race, and socioeconomic status influence children’s STEM experiences.

The Chicago STEM Pathways Cooperative is particularly interested in the fourth point, as it relates to issues of access and equity.

The report is the culmination of two years of work by the Early Childhood STEM Working Group, co-organized by Erikson Institute and University of Chicago STEM Education. With the report, the working group, which includes scholars, policy makers, curriculum developers, and educators from across the United States, aims to inform the public discussion around STEM experiences in the early years. It provides six recommendations for improving early STEM experiences, based on the guiding principles described above:

  • Through advocacy and messaging, raise awareness about the importance of access to high-quality STEM education for all children.
  • Improve STEM-related teacher preparation and ongoing professional development.
  • Involve parents in their children’s STEM experiences by offering initiatives and resources that encourage their participation outside the classroom.
  • Develop resources and offer guidance to support educators’ efforts to implement STEM experiences in the classroom.
  • Make sure that educational standards at the state level explicitly address STEM disciplines.
  • Establish a long-term research agenda to shape ongoing support for and development of early childhood STEM education.