“Early childhood education is an important priority in our region. By offering more professional development opportunities for teachers, we can increase the quality of STEM programs available to children in this area." - Dr. Brooke Gorman, Tennessee Aquarium Director of Science Education
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (PRWEB) August 31, 2018
Research shows that children should be introduced to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts as early as possible, but for many educators — especially those in early childhood programs — opportunities for improving their ability to cover these topics are few and far between.
A $103,000 grant recently awarded to the Tennessee Aquarium and Creative Discovery Museum (CDM) by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) will help early childhood educators in Chattanooga and the Southeast become more STEM-literate.
The grant — offered through IMLS’ Community Catalyst Initiative —will fund an assessment to determine the best ways to implement professional development focused on high-quality early childhood STEM education. The grant starts Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30, 2019.
Although it frequently is associated with technological or scientific fields, children introduced to STEM are inherently learning to think critically and to methodically solve problems. Those lessons have lifelong benefits, regardless of a student’s eventual career path, says Dr. Brooke Gorman, the Aquarium’s Director of Science Education.
“By practicing the important skills that are part of STEM, children make connections in their brains about how the world works,” Gorman says. “A lot of this development occurs before children arrive at elementary school, so early childhood educators have the opportunity to really help shape the way children think and solve problems.
“I am thrilled that the Aquarium and CDM have been awarded a federal grant to help support the Chattanooga community and beyond. We know that early childhood education is an important priority in our region. By offering more professional development opportunities for teachers, we can increase the quality of the programs available to children in this area.”
As community leaders in sparking the curiosity and wonder of children, the Aquarium and CDM are natural collaborators in this mission, adds Dr. Jayne Griffin, CDM’s Director of Education.
“The research continues to unfold about how young children develop in the ways they view the world,” Griffin says. “This partnership will combine the STEM education expertise of the Aquarium and the early childhood education expertise of the Creative Discovery Museum to make the best practices in early learning accessible to all early childhood educators in the region.”
When the grant goes into effect, the next step will be to convene an advisory team of stakeholders from the Chattanooga area. With their input, the Aquarium and CDM will be better equipped to craft professional development opportunities that meet teachers’ real-world needs.
Despite the important role early childhood educators can play in introducing children to STEM concepts, less than five percent of preschool activities are related to STEM, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The comparative absence of STEM education from early childhood education facilities around the country further compounds the educational shortfall in Hamilton County, where less than half of all children entering kindergarten are ready to learn, according to a report from the Chattanooga 2.0 initiative. That deficit follows through to third grade — when about 60 percent cannot read on their grade level — contributing to an achievement gap that persists long after graduation.
This grant lays the framework for a professional learning center to serve early childhood teachers and will help the Aquarium and CDM focus their efforts based on educators’ on-the-ground feedback. In doing so, it supports the Chattanooga 2.0 goal of ensuring that all early childhood providers have access to resources which can educate and improve the quality of care.
“This grant is really about making sure the Museum and the Aquarium are aware of the early childhood community’s needs and determining how we can best address them,” Gorman says.
Improving educators’ effectiveness in teaching STEM will be of tremendous, immediate value to the community, Griffin says.
“In the short run, Chattanooga will benefit as a result of the professional development center because it will support efforts to improve the quality of early childhood education here,” she says.
The long-term impact of those improvements could be even greater. By producing students who are well-versed in the principles of STEM, Chattanooga will be better positioned to attract and meet the needs of businesses well into the future.
“Kids who have grown up understanding STEM thinking will have the skills and abilities needed to be part of a 21st-century workforce. They’ll know how to solve problems and know how to think through something to get an answer,” Gorman says. “In the long run, that will really help Chattanooga become a more desirable location for companies because we’ll have a generation of people who know how to do those things.”