STEM Seeds Planted Early

At a recent event hosted by the Brookings Institution, NASA Chief Administrator Charles Bolden noted that in order for the U.S. to reach Mars by the 2030s, our kids need to develop a mindset for embracing and understanding science right now -- in elementary school. Think about that for a moment: If we are to reach for the stars, and if we are to secure our nation's future as a global leader in innovation and economic prosperity, our investment lies not only in our workforce development and the strength of our engineering and space programs, but also in our youngest learners. Sadly, despite our progress expanding math and science learning opportunities for high school and college students, we are still starting too late.

You don't have to look far to know our nation is finally heeding the call for greater support for student proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). From consumer awareness to education policy changes, we are finally taking action to address the shortage of STEM professionals. The Obama Administration has introduced the STEM for All initiative, which provides pathways for underrepresented students to obtain STEM degrees. Corporate leaders like ExxonMobil are stepping up to support the STEM career pipeline, and a push for computer science skills for all is gaining traction through initiatives like CS4All and a plethora of locally-championed formal and informal programs and summer camps for middle and high school students.

Our increased awareness of STEM gaps and our work to expand access to enriching learning opportunities are key to equipping the next generation with the critical skills they will need to succeed in the future. However, with our focus set on college readiness, we neglect to consider the root of this issue, which begins as early as elementary school and preschool.

Research shows engaging students early in STEM topics is beneficial for two key reasons. First, when we wait until middle or high school to engage students in math and science, we miss out on a large group of students who had the potential to pursue STEM, but focused their interests elsewhere. This is particularly true for girls and students of color who are told, early and often, that STEM subjects somehow aren't really for them.

Science is inherently fascinating to young children who are curious about the world around them. However, without high-quality, age-appropriate science education in the early grades, that interest wanes as students move through school. Studies show that by the time students reach the fourth grade, nearly one third of them have lost interest in science. By the time these same students reach middle school, the loss jumps to 50 percent. Outreach programs in high school can inspire many students to rediscover a love and talent for STEM, but for many others, their preconceived notions about math and science are difficult to change. We must do our part to get at the root of this problem and keep students engaged from the start.

The other benefit of early engagement is that establishing a strong, early foundation for STEM learning actually strengthens students' abilities to succeed in STEM in the later grades. By beginning STEM learning in younger grades, we help children develop systems thinking and problem solving, which are exactly the skills needed for their future success.

So can we simply replicate our high school programs for younger students? Not exactly. For younger learners, the key to capturing and maintaining this interest is to engage them in STEM learning daily. Finding math and science connections in everyday life and using those instances to demonstrate basic principles can be an effective way of building a lifelong interest in STEM subjects, inside and outside of the classroom. Playing with blocks might be the gateway to an engineering career, taking on a simple coding exercise may lead to a lifetime fascination with technology. The possibilities are endless if we can help young learners access the appropriate resources.

Our potential for solving society's greatest challenges is tremendous. I, for one, look to our youngest generation with hope. It's on us to nurture their passion and talents so they grow up to advance and apply STEM knowledge in ways beyond our imagination.