By JD Chesloff
Young children are inquisitive learners who ask an average of 76 questions per hour. They are natural scientists and engineers who learn Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) concepts through play. Research confirms that the brain is particularly receptive to learning math and logic between the ages of 1 and 4.
The Globe recently reported on an amazing partnership between IBM and the Mattapan Family Service Center Head Start that is helping to spark and nurture kids’ interest in math and science. Teachers are incorporating special computer stations donated by IBM into the curriculum to great effect for the children and their families.
This is important to Massachusetts’ long term competitiveness because today’s young children are tomorrow’s workforce, and workers who are fluent in STEM competencies will be more prepared and qualified to fill the jobs that will drive our economy into the future. Yet, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, STEM positions are the hardest for employers to fill, especially with fewer degrees awarded in STEM than other areas, such as business, humanities and social sciences. STEM occupations are expected to increase over the next decade, so there is a mismatch between projected future jobs requiring STEM skills and the projected supply of qualified workers to fill them.
Recognizing this phenomenon, and at the urging of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable and a coalition of business leaders working closely with Lt. Governor Tim Murray, Governor Deval Patrick created the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council in 2009. The Council is implementing a state STEM agenda that would ensure that the education pipeline – from pre-K through higher education – is producing workers skilled in STEM competencies. Massachusetts is a national leader in developing a long-term STEM plan and a strategy to implement it.
Part of this leadership has been the state’s recognition of the important and powerful link between early childhood education and STEM, officially recognizing that “inquiry and exploration are foundations for math and science and are also the foundations for early learning.” In fact, the STEM Advisory Council set goals for improving students’ STEM achievement in the Commonwealth, including a recommendation to increase the number of educators trained in STEM subjects in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. As the Early Education for All Campaign, organized by Strategies for Children, Inc., points out, high-quality early education provides essential supports for future success in life and in school and is the basis for children’s aptitude in STEM in later years.
This leadership recently paid tangible dividends, as Massachusetts was selected as one of nine grant award winners in President Obama's Early Learning Challenge (ELC) competition, and will receive $50 million over the next four years to expand high quality early education services and close achievement gaps in education. The state’s application specifically focuses on giving early educators the opportunity to “build a systemic, intentional practice around STEM concepts.”
The link between early childhood and STEM is indisputable. Early exposure to STEM – whether it be in school, at a museum, a library, or just engaging in the natural trial and error of play – supports children’s overall academic growth, develops early critical thinking and reasoning skills, and enhances later interest in STEM study and careers. Massachusetts is now a recognized leader in both individually and, more importantly, collectively. We must continue to connect these two agendas as we drive policy forward in each. High-quality early learning environments provide children a structure in which to build upon their natural inclination to explore, to build, and to question – no matter how many times per hour they do it.
JD Chesloff is executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, chair of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council’s Executive Committee, and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care.