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Collaboration with PBS Produces Innovative STEM Supports

As the world becomes more reliant on technology, there is an ever-growing need for education to evolve and provide greater support for skill development in science, technology, engineering, and math. Together, these increasing important learning areas are referred to as STEM. Reforming education to incorporate increased STEM better prepares the students of today for the challenges they will face tomorrow.

It is never too early to start! The early childhood years are a prime time to introduce opportunities for sophisticated reasoning. Mounting evidence demonstrates that access to STEM learning experiences in early childhood are critical for development of higher-level cognitive skills. Starting at a young age allows children to have a strong foundation in STEM concepts and gain confidence in these high-priority subject areas.

As a leader in early childhood education, the Children’s Learning Institute (CLI) set a goal to significantly increase the STEM materials available to educators throughout the state. Over the past year faculty and content developers worked diligently to increase the quantity and scope of STEM activities included in the CIRCLE Activity Collection. The collection is an extensive library of classroom lessons freely available for use by Texas prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers and administrators. This collection now boasts 73 science activities and 109 math activities providing lessons to support teaching in these key learning domains.

CLI has been using similar activities with great success for years as part of the Texas School Ready Program, a comprehensive preschool teacher training program. The activities are teacher-led and structured around a standard lesson cycle. Each includes scripting for the teacher’s use in introducing, modeling, and scaffolding children’s responses. Thus allowing the teacher the ability to individualize the activity to best match the skill levels of their students.

Wanting to design a more innovative approach to individualized learning, CLI received a gift from the Herman H. Fleishman Foundation making this possible. The $30,000 gift provided a jumpstart to what would become a new collaboration with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). A project was developed to expand the STEM learning recommendations automatically provided by the student assessment system, CIRCLE Progress Monitoring System. In addition, the project would enhance the way students engage with the STEM content.

Believing that quality instruction in early childhood focuses on play-based learning combining teacher-directed and child-directed activities, CLI set out to develop the first child-facing STEM activities. A partnership was formed with PBS allowing CLI to select and use video from their extensive library that includes STEM content presented in a child-friendly and entertaining manner.

The result of this collaboration is the development of 20 child-directed, interactive lessons by CLI. Designed around selections from the PBS video library, the activities teach foundational STEM skills known to be important for 3-6 year olds. Set in a virtual laboratory setting, the CIRCLE STEM Lab integrates the video segments with hands-on activities to be completed by the child. Each activity is designed to facilitate independent learning by individual students.

Dr. Dana DeMaster, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Co-Principal Investigator for the project, explains the process of using the newly developed child-directed activities:

  • First, the teacher will search for the child-facing activity from CLI Engage. Then introduce the student to the online activity, and instruct them to watch the included video.
  • The activity is led by central characters, Susie Stem and Stembot, who provide student instruction and guidance during the presentation of the new concepts.
  • The student participates in independent practice using the newly learned information to demonstrate their understanding of the skill through an online exercise. (e.g., answer questions, categorize, sort)
  • Finally, the student engages in a hands-on activity applying the concepts learned in the real world to help them integrate knowledge and master the skill. (e.g., drawing, model making, conducting simple experiments)

Characters Suzie Stem and Stembot

Dr. DeMaster said, “This is an innovative model that has not been tried before, but is promising.” According to her research, STEM is an underrepresented area of digital learning in prekindergarten. The new activities incorporating PBS videos step up the student’s depth of knowledge through immediate transfer to action.

To better understand how teachers and students engage with this format, the modules will be the focus of a pilot study being planned for the 2020-21 academic year. The pilot intends to answer three questions:

  1. Is this model easy for teachers to implement as part of their STEM curriculum?
  2. How engaged are the students when using the activities?
  3. Is there transfer from the digital environment to real world activities?

Combining multiple learning principles in a single activity could yield exciting results. Used in conjunction with independent learning by students, teachers could maximize limited instructional time. With positive outcomes and additional funding, CLI hopes to continue the collaboration with PBS and develop 200 video activities.

To see samples of the CIRCLE STEM Lab activities, use the below links to gain access through CLI Engage. (We ask that you enter "CLI" in place of a student's name when viewing these samples.)

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