Junior school STEM: get your daughter stacking - The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 2022
This article was published by The Sydney Morning Herald in the Independent Schools Guide, 23 July 2022.
Students grapple with concepts, tools and processes that are often beyond the day-to-day experience of many adults, write Alyssa Longmuir, Wendy Abernethy and Ruth Adams.
STEM is the buzz acronym in contemporary education: one so ubiquitous it has become a word in its own right. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics have always been an important part of education.
Any time students are using a tool for an intentional purpose, whether that is a pen or a digital stylus, they are engaging with science, technology and engineering: the creative output of someone who has gone before them with an ingenious invention or innovation.
Technology does not just pertain to digital equipment and skills. A wheel is technology! However, our students are also grappling with STEM concepts, tools, processes and thinking which are at the cutting edge of the contemporary world, often beyond the day-to-day experience of many adults.
Being a girls’ school and an IB World School implementing the primary years program (PYP), Tara is uniquely placed to create novice scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians. Girls learn that these pursuits are available, relevant to them and key to roles they will play in the world.
STEM IN THE CURRICULUM
The junior school embeds STEM in a multitude of ways, from the PYP inquiry units led by classroom teachers and supported by the ICT integrator to stand-alone STEM lessons where girls can express themselves and learn specific skills in information technology, coding and engineering.
Digital skills such as typing, file management and email etiquette, as well as an understanding of the Microsoft suite, may not seem at the cutting edge of an exciting STEM offering; however, by intentionally teaching these skills, girls gain the fundamentals that are necessary to thrive in a contemporary world from an early age (UNICEF, 2020).
In addition, girls become experienced in concepts such as the design cycle, team roles, computational thinking and the all important role of ‘‘failure’’ in
STEM. DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION:A CAUTIONARYTALE FOR GIRLS
Design and construction are at the heart of STEM. Engineering and mathematics are key components of construction, underpinned by strong spatial awareness – the capacity to think about objects in three dimensions.
A girl with good spatial ability can draw conclusions about objects from limited information. For example, she may be good with tangram puzzles or be able to describe how a 3D object will look from a different viewpoint.
Play equipment such as Lego, blocks and jigsaw puzzles are the best means by which children develop spatial and, by association, mathematical ability.
Therefore, the play opportunities we give our daughters can develop or put limitations on their development of spatial ability and capacity to construct, especially when we consider that only 12 per cent of preschool girls play mainly with construction toys compared with 50 per cent of boys.
Children who engage frequently in constructive play (blocks, Lego, jigsaw puzzles, building, tangrams, paper folding, knitting/crochet) have better spatial skills and, therefore, higher performance on mathematical word problems and spatial tasks.
The good news is that spatial skills, like all skills, can be improved with practice. Our girls need more real, basic construction experiences. As teachers, parents and grandparents, we should look for construction experiences for our girls that are just that: creative construction rather than closed play. This means choosing materials where there is openendedness, meaning many possibilities of what you can construct versus items that have only one outcome.
Construction play develops specific brain connections and a range of STEM-related skills. So, get your daughter stacking, tearing, assembling, disassembling, sorting and moulding: not only will she develop her mathematical ability, she will learn that there is nothing girls cannot do. (Oostermeijer, M.,Boonen, A., and Jolles, J. (2014)
It is hard to ‘‘be’’ what you cannot ‘‘see’’. Increased female representation in the form of peers, role models and teachers assists girls to identify their strengths and empowers them to take STEM subjects at higher levels (AGSA,2019; IEU, 2020).
This is a core belief and driver throughout Tara’s ELC-year 6STEM curriculum. Students are exposed to a range of female STEM professionals.
Even the simple act of a female STEM integrator in both junior and senior school and a female director of technology sends a powerful message.
CRACKING THE CODE
Our intention is not to instil a fluency in any particular coding language but, more importantly, with the transferable skills of a coder that are essential in this rapidly evolving space, including the ability to troubleshoot and debug issues, the confidence to push through failures and an understanding of structures and grammatical nuances.
PAST AND FUTURE
STEM learning across the curriculum enables girls to engage with the design process, interact with a variety of technology and media, and experiment with construction and making. While modern STEM education, with all its bells and whistles, is on full display in our classrooms, it is enhanced by also appreciating and inquiring deeply into the historical foundations on which the subject is built.
Junior students enjoy exploring artifacts such as telephones, cameras, tapes, floppy disks and old computers, the tools of technology that have in many ways been relegated to the history books but tell an important story regarding humanity’s ability to innovate, including the role of women.
ENTHUSIASM,TALENT AND FUN
For some girls, STEM has a strong pull. Knowing the day holds opportunities to use, grow and share their STEM knowledge and skill is highly motivating, so, in addition to curricular STEM, girls can participate in experiences such as national coding competitions and lunchtime clubs. Here, girls are using the green-screen room to create out-of-this world video content for movie making, podcasting, dismantling computers using authentic engineering tools and methods, doing old-school construction and achieving common goals in Minecraft. These experiences allow girls with special interests in STEM to express their talents in unique ways.
A longer version of this article was first published by Tara Anglican School for Girls.