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Putting the sparkle into science, technology, engineering and maths by June O’Sullivan

‘Young children acquire and construct knowledge all the time and, therefore, involving them in a research project helps them to understand their own experience and environments. In turn, this strengthens confidence in their ability to make sense of their world ‘ 40

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Opinions about science, technology, engineering and maths subjects are formed at a young age and can last throughout life, but they can be fun and engaging, using investigation and experimentation.


n the lead up to the 2010 Early Years Foundation Stage review, London Early Years Foundation began a partnership with EngineeringUK, an independent organisation that promotes engineering to young people, to discuss the benefits of introducing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) to children aged two, three and four-years-old. London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) is a charity and social enterprise providing community nurseries to children aged from six-months to fiveyears-old across London. We work with children from all parts of the community and have an ambition to ensure that these children achieve their potential irrespective of their start in life. Our organisations share the belief that introducing STEM activities at an early age is fundamental in building competency and changing negative perceptions that are formed in childhood. To date, EngineeringUK activities have focused on children older than seven-years-old. Evidence suggests, however, that children should be engaged in STEM activities at the early years stage. Research shows that opinions about STEM subjects are formed at a young age and significantly affect people’s choices throughout life. For example, girls at primary school are more likely to associate negative words to the term ‘engineering’, making it no surprise that the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the EU. In contrast, those with a better knowledge of engineering are more likely to see it as enjoyable.


is The London Early Years approach?

Every year we formally review one aspect of the curriculum on the basis that children’s learning is enhanced when we understand better that ‘how’ and ‘what’ we do affects children’s development. This year science came under the lens, as part of the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework: Knowledge and Understanding of the World. We operate within three phases: • Look: Building a picture and gathering information. When evaluating, we define and describe the problem to be investigated and the context in which it is set. We also describe what has caused us to ask the question. • Think: Interpreting and explaining. When evaluating, we analyse and interpret the situation. We reflect on what the adults have been doing. We eye Volume 12 No 8 December 2010

look at areas of success and any deficiencies, issues or problems. • Act: Resolving issues and problems. In evaluation, we judge the worth, effectiveness, appropriateness, and outcomes of those activities. We act to formulate solutions to any problems. Using this approach has helped us to deepen and develop our practice, and to become more reflective and proactive about making changes. There are 20 LEYF nurseries, so once we discover which area needs attention we run a pilot initiative in our three main geographical areas: East, south and north London. This approach helps us to stay on top of what we do. It also ensures that we embed an attitude of continual improvement, which we believe is the basis of good quality learning, play and teaching across the organisation. LEYF believes that young children acquire and construct new knowledge all the time and, therefore, involving them in a research project helps them to understand their own experience and environments. In turn, this strengthens their confidence in their ability to make sense of their world and their desire to master skills that will assist them in doing so. Involving children in research helps them to achieve a greater retention and transfer of learning, and creates a more active environment where children can take creative and innovative responses to problems. We involve the children by engaging them in the planning process; we set up a context that makes sense to the children, enabling them to discuss their ideas and to explore their interests and capabilities. The following structure summarises the more common approaches used by LEYF staff to conduct their research: • Discussion and conversations with staff, children and parents. • Fieldwork through observation. • Investigation using analysis and debate. • Representation through storyboarding the process and findings. • Display and drama. • Staff clusters to encourage collaboration and selfreflective enquiry.

June O’Sullivan is chief executive, London Early Years Foundation

Research shows that opinions about STEM subjects are formed at a young age and significantly affect people’s choices throughout life 41

Focus aspects of STEM; many felt that the subjects had been neglected and that they relied on the same old activities. Within the EYFS statutory framework, Knowledge and understanding of the world aims to enable children to make sense of the world. As such, practitioners are required to help the children to use a range of tools safely; encounter creatures, people, plants and objects in their natural environments and in real-life situations; undertake practical ‘experiments’; and work with a range of materials.


did we act on our findings?

Many of the activities were planned to be used both in the setting and at home • Coaching in a way that will help staff generate versatile and creative responses through active listening and effective questioning.


to introduce STEM activities to children in the early years

We started with a number of questions: • Are we offering children a broad and balanced science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) framework? • Are we missing opportunities to support or extend a child’s thinking, or were the children bored? • Are the adults sufficiently knowledgeable or interested in order to ensure the best learning opportunities?

What did we discover?

We discovered quite quickly that our femaledominated staff groups were anxious about some 42

We started to build relationships with related local organisations, such as museums. At the Benjamin Franklin Museum, for example, we spoke to their primary link teacher, and although the museum did not usually work with nursery children, the teacher was motivated by our aims and arranged to visit us and help with ideas and activity plans. We sent staff to Edinburgh for the Children in Europe Annual Conference 2009 – Exploring the world and beyond: young children as scientists. Most STEM subjects are aimed at older children, but we were delighted by the range of ideas we could use with simple adaptations. We read as much as we could about science for young children in nurseries and our pilot went live in three nurseries. We began to plan routine activities based on firsthand experiences that would encourage exploration, experimentation, observation, problem solving, prediction, critical thinking, decision making and discussion. We built a weekly STEM experiment with a ‘cause and effect’ activity into the weekly plan to encourage reluctant staff to give it a go. Experimenting is a powerful way to unlock enthusiasm in small children so we framed everything within the concept of an experiment, whether we were mixing cornflour or completing a cookery activity. We set up planned activities for the children to complete with adult support. Following this structured exercise, the children were able to explore the activities themselves through free play. We organised a fortnight of science focused activities with daily opportunities for parents to join us. Science evenings were also a good way to involve parents. Mums and Dads were invited to set up the top five STEM activities with their children and were provided with a take-home activity forms to enable the learning and enthusiasm for STEM subjects to be extended beyond the children’s centre.


do young children benefit from STEM activities?

Following the pilot schemes, more children actively asked to take part in STEM activities. Initially, we

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Focus thought that the boys’ interest would exceed the girls’ but the level of enthusiasm was even. Children began to make quicker links between their exposure to science, technology, engineering and maths, and their simple routine activities – playing with playdough was more easily associated with science, for example. STEM vocabulary increased and words, such as ‘react’ and ‘concoction’, were played with and explored with – with great delight. Children wanted to engage in the activities at home and actively encouraged their parents to take home activity sheets.


did parents react?

Increasing the amount of STEM-based activities increased parental engagement in the activities that their children were involved in. Parents were surprised by their children’s ability to grasp abstract concepts and to identify scientific links, such as volcanoes and tsunami, wind and plastic bag kites. Dads became particularly involved and appreciated the simplicity of the activities, which improved the relationship between activities carried out at nursery and at home.


were the outcomes for practitioners?

Practitioners required coaching initially, but started to do more STEM-based activities and set up interesting areas more quickly than anticipated as their confidence grew. They became less concerned about letting the children do activities independently under observation, and began to encourage, rather than instructing and supervising. The pilots have shown that open-ended questions extend children’s thinking and open up opportunities to confirm their understanding. Prior to this, the approach to science, technology, engineering and maths in the early years has been more instructional, asking direct and closed questions. We are much more aware of the importance of active listening as a means of enabling children to lead STEM-based experiments. Activities whereby the practitioner will listen and extend their conversation using more scientific language have proved effective. When it comes to facilitating experiments, eye contact with the children is important in building confidence with practical activities, together with plenty of encouragement, affirmation, checking and clarifying. Practice can be improved when there is an

Experimenting and sensory investigation are powerful ways to unlock enthusiasm in children when learning about the world they live in

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Children can make links between science, technology, engineering and maths, and simple routine activities agreed focus on goals and finding solutions, and a willingness to explore new approaches and to learn.


will we do next?

LEYF is designing a book of LEYF STEM activities to help support other children’s centres. This will include popular experiments, including: • Vinegar and oil. • Making butter. • Making toothpaste. We plan to share and spread the knowledge generated by the pilot schemes. Lead pilot staff will write and teach a workshop for the organisation. We will develop the principle of coaching more explicitly, and ensure it is built into any new project with the aim of embedding a focus on more STEM-based activities into KUW learning. Listed below are just a few activities for you to try: Dancing raisins Knowledge and understanding of the world: Explorationandinvestigation–showunderstanding of cause/effect relations. You will need: Glass tumblers, raisins, soda water or lemonade. Key words/sign language: Raisins, popping, sink, glass, dancing, float, soda water, top, rise, bubbles, gas, predict. 44

By the end of the activity, you want the children: • To know: What ingredients we need to place in the glass in order to make the raisins dance to the top. • To be able to: Pour the soda water or lemonade into the glass, then place the raisins in and observe (and discuss) what they think is happening. • To understand: (to begin) to understand that the gas causes the raisins to rise to the top of the glass and then sink back down. Show the children how to pour the soda water or lemonade, and how to fill the glass half full. Once the soda water or lemonade has been poured into the glass, explain to the children that you place a small handful of raisins into the glass. This is a good opportunity to introduce new vocabulary to the children. The carbonated water will lift the raisins to the surface. Allow the children to explore the experiment for themselves and observe discussions being carried out by the children. To enhance the children’s skills, knowledge and learning attitude, you can demonstrate the sequence of adding ingredients. The children’s knowledge will be extended as they note the effects that occur when new ingredients are put in. Children will have the knowledge to complete the process independently, observe and follow the adult step-by-step, or explore the ingredients in their own way. The children will become more skilful in understanding and executing the sequence to enable the raisins to dance. You can extend this activity in eye Volume 12 No 8 December 2010

Focus two ways, for the more able children ask them to suggest ingredients they think should be added and to predict what they think the effect will be. For less able children, display various ingredients on a table and ask the children whether they can name them? Making toothpaste Knowledge and understanding of the world: Explorationandinvestigation–showunderstanding of cause/effect relations. You will need: Toothbrushes, glass tumblers, spoons, water, bicarbonate of soda, glycerine, salt and peppermint essence. Key words/sign language: Science, mix together/ stir, snappy, ingredients, explore, ingredient names, experiment. By the end of the activity, you want the children: • To know: What ingredients we need to mix together to create toothpaste for ‘Snappy’ (a toothy crocodile toy or puppet would work well here). • To be able to: Mix the ingredients together to make toothpaste (to brush Snappy’s teeth). • To understand: That when the ingredients are mixed together a solid toothpaste is formed. Show the children what toothpaste looks, feels and smells like. Show them the quantity of each ingredient needed to be added in and at what stage. For example: 3 spoons of bicarbonate of soda, 3 spoons of salt, 1 spoon of peppermint essence, 1 spoon of glycerine and 2/3 spoons of water. The children can mix together the ingredients for themselves to create toothpaste.

• To be able to: Connect the wires together to make the light bulb light up. • To understand: The wires and the batteries make the light bulbs light up when connected correctly. Show the children how to connect each wire and where. Explain to the children that the batteries also have to be connected. Involve the children when connecting the wires, showing them where they have to be connected to make the light bulb light up. Allow the children to explore connecting the wires together to make the light bulb switch on. Spooky Shadows Knowledge and understanding of the world: Explorationandinvestigation–showunderstanding of cause/effect relations. You will need: Straws, card, paper, felt tips, pencils, sticky tape and scissors. Key words/sign language: Spooky, resources (names), shadows, weather, sun, behind/in front.

Cornflour Knowledge and understanding of the world: Explorationandinvestigation–showunderstanding of cause/effect relations. You will need: Cornflour, bowl, wooden spoon, food colouring (optional). Key words/sign language: Thick, paste, change, consistency. Pour some cornflour into a bowl and mix it with water until it becomes thick enough to pour but feels solid under pressure. Pour this onto the table and allow the children to explore the texture. Different toys can be added for the children to play with in the cornflour, such as megablocks, cars or animals. A small amount of food colouring or essences can also be added to the water when mixing the cornflour. Electricity circuit Knowledge and understanding of the world: Exploration and investigation – show curiosity about why things happen and how things work. You will need: Wires, crocodile clips, batteries (and cases), light bulbs and stands. Key words/sign language: Circuits, connect, wires, bright, light bulb/s, screw, battery, explore. By the end of the activity, you want the children: • To know: That wires need to be connected together to make the bulb light up. eye Volume 12 No 8 December 2010

Children can learn about properties of ingredients and the effects of combining them



Children will make more creative responses to problems if you involve them in all stages of project research By the end of the activity, you want the children: • To know: That shadows can be found or seen. • To be able to: Create a spooky puppet and discover its shadow. • To understand: A shadow is caused when light beams hit an object and bounce off. Show the children how to design and create their own puppet using the resources provided. Ask the children to create their own puppet and find their shadows. Discuss with the children how shadows are formed and what causes them to appear. Encourage the children to find shadows and discuss how or why they can move. Reflection, with children and colleagues At the end of each activity, take time to reflect, both with the children and with your colleagues. Ask the children to discuss what they have learnt, what they are able to do now that they were not able to do before and what helped them learn? With colleagues, discuss what went well, what they thought could be improved and different ways

Key points ● London Early Years Foundation has formed a partnership with EngineeringUK,

which introduces science, technology, engineering and maths to children aged two, three and four-years-old, which is when lifelong attitudes develop ● Young children acquire and construct new knowledge all the time and, therefore, involving them in a research project helps them to understand their own experience and environments


of extending the learning. Could the activity be improved with more scaffolding of learning, through more observation and listening, could there have been more or less demonstration, could you have invited more questions, or asked more questions and so on?


the early years is important

Paul Jackson, chief executive of EngineeringUK, commenting on this initiative, said: ‘EngineeringUK works to promote the vital contribution that engineers, engineering and technology, make to our society. As such, we work with a variety of partners to deliver programmes promoting STEM to young people. ‘To date, our work has focused on inspiring young people from the age of seven to 19 with programmes, such as our flagship national event, The Big Bang: UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair, and Tomorrow’s Engineers, which delivers activities in schools. I have been delighted to work with London Early Years Foundation. Schemes which encourage more STEM activities for the under-fives should be further expanded and evaluated, with a view to incorporating more valuable activities into the Early Years Foundation Stage. ‘Science, technology, engineering and maths is fun, and children of all ages and backgrounds should have the opportunity to find this out for themselves. There are so many great opportunities within STEM and children should be involved in them as early as possible.’  eye eye Volume 12 No 8 December 2010

Putting the sparkle into science, technology, engineering and maths  

Article by our CEO, June O'Sullivan, for Early YEars Educator in December, 2010.

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