Getting an Early Jump on STEM (U.S. News)

Panelists at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference spoke about how children learn STEM at a young age.

Experts say early education is key to closing achievement gaps, and that teaching children about STEM topics even before kindergarten can help them be successful in school later on.

These topics were explored in a panel Wednesday at the 2015 U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference in San Diego, called "Getting an Early Jump on STEM." The panel was moderated by Michael Morella, associate editor at U.S. News & World Report.

Panelists included Wanyonyi Kendrick, start-up executive director for the Northeast Florida Regional STEM2 Hub; Annette Huett, science teacher at Kelley Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma; Douglas Clements, Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and professor at the University of Denver in Colorado; and Sam Whiting, president and CEO of Thrive Washington, a program that supports early learning.

Panelists shared how they involved young children in STEM learning, how much students were capable of at an early age, and how educators can develop better skills to be able to teach children how to approach problem-solving. A mastery of math, in particular, they say, can contribute to success that can be maintained in high school, college and eventually used in a job.

Clements noted how children who come from low-income homes are at a disadvantage before they come to kindergarten. Middle-income children hear 93,000 words on average before they enter kindergarten, while low-income children hear about 1,500 words a year, or 60 times less.

[READ: The Way to Science Is Through a Girl's Heart]

Whiting said because children are starting from different areas, it's important to know how they learn.

Clements encouraged educators to take a playful approach to math, and Whiting spoke of incorporating social and emotional development.

The amount of time spent learning about these topics can be key. "To be a professional in anything you need to get 10,000 hours," Kendrick says. "We need to make sure our students are getting 10,000 hours in STEM." She recommended that parents be present and engaged in their children's future.

"I don't teach, I just provide the environment to learn," she says.

Businesses also can be part of the solution by investing in education, she says.

Huett stressed the importance of professional development for teachers, saying that 40 percent of elementary school teachers don't feel adequately trained to teach science. Teachers need to seek STEM programs that provide professional development, she says, and should work with a mentor or coach.

She was stunned by the results when she sought additional training, and says before making this change nine years ago she was ready to quit teaching. "As teachers we have to change the way we think," she says. "It's one thing to give students the facts, but they will be learning when they start doing … We have to think the way they think and ask, 'What if we did this? What would happen?'"

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