Growing STEM Awareness for the Youngest Students

Over the past several years, we at Sun Associates have written much about our evaluation work with STEM projects that focus on middle and high school students and their teachers. Our recent work with space science and solar/green building simulations has highlighted the value of hands-on, inquiry-based, learning experiences and has offered suggestions for how teachers can best facilitate such experiences with students. We’ve studied subjects as diverse as the development of artificial intelligence-enhanced simulation software and the use of pre-colonial-era historical maps as ways to engage students in hands-on exploration of data and development of the questions so essential to culturing the critical thinking skills at the root of inquiry-based learning.  A new project this Fall explores additional possibilities for reaching the youngest students, using the Earth itself as the hands-on learning experience.

During the 2018/19 school year, Sun Associates is starting work with an early learning initiative developed by Cambridge (MA)-based CitySprouts. This initiative will train PreK to Grade 2 teachers in two Boston Public Schools to use school gardens as a basis for teaching standards-aligned inquiry science to the district’s youngest students. As CitySprouts says, the training will help teachers “…bridge the PreK – Grade 2 science standards and the school learning garden to increase the number of Boston children entering third grade with a solid foundation in scientific thinking and content knowledge. The training aligns with and supports the BPS Early Education curriculum. “ CitySprouts’ work in this initiative leverages research that indicates that a child’s interest in science is rooted in life and learning experiences that transpire as early as age 3.  Further, as we’ve written about before in this blog, the underpinnings of STEM – namely skills in critical thinking and inquiry – transcend traditional classroom science, math, and technology-based curricula and experiences.  STEM learners are truly interdisciplinary learners, and there are few experiences that are as interdisciplinary, and as child-friendly, as gardening.

We’ve just started our work with this CitySprouts’ initiative, but we’ve already met with project staff to develop project outcomes and performance indicators for the first year’s work.  Teacher professional development is a critical component of the initiative.  The project is aiming to develop teacher knowledge of state and NGSS standards that apply to young children, and to develop teacher confidence in implementing these standards via activities connected to the school garden.  In addition, the project has a strong interest in articulating the value of hands-on student experiences to parents and families.  As we’ve learned in our other STEM work (particularly that around green building and energy conservation) as well as our ELL-focused projects, family engagement is often the key ingredient that accelerates and solidifies student engagement and thereby learning. Evaluation data collection for the CitySprouts work will therefore include not only measures of teacher implementation, understanding, and confidence but will also investigate how the story of the project and its work transmits to parents. We anticipate considerable work around parent and family surveys, focus groups, and interviews.

As is always the case with Sun Associates’ evaluation work, our work with CitySprouts will be highly formative. CitySprouts works with over 20 Boston and Cambridge schools, so the seeds planted from this project will indeed help the organization grow its approach to STEM in an increasing number of schools.  Come back for updates soon!