Time went by fast for me this school year. I had the opportunity to collaborate with some great librarians on various projects. One of the things that I learned during my quest for knowledge was that children are not the same way they used to be. I find that they seem much wiser and adult-like than the children that I taught 10 years ago. Some believe they have life figured out.
Part of my work this year was asking youth what they want to be when they grow up. I posed the question to a group of 4th-grade students. I expect children to have a variety of interests. However, I was not prepared for the polarized reactions that I received. The 4th-grade students that I studied were already adamant about who they are and what they want to be when they become adults. Perhaps I am an outlier. I remember myself in 4th grade, and I was just starting to think about careers. Of course, I did not realize that my parents were channeling subliminal messages. In our house, education was supreme. But what happens when children do not have comparable support?
I know that in 4th grade, students are still pliable. You can mold them and help them see alternative viewpoints. Yet, as I listened, I observed how their pliable perspectives were starting to go through a hardening process. (The researcher in me wants to study this.) Then it occurred to me that 4th grade is not too late, but it may not be early enough to introduce students to STEM careers. Interventions should start early and provide sustained exposure.
Why is this important to librarianship as a profession?
It is important because we can be the equalizers in our communities. I was appalled when I started a teaching position in a school with a magnet program. The school served magnet school students who were selected to be part of the program and neighborhood students. Most of the students that participated in the magnet program were middle and upper classed. Students from the surrounding impoverished community were rarely included in the magnet program.
The regular students did not have the same experiences as the students in the magnet program. Their classes had higher teacher-to-student ratios, a different curriculum, less equipment, and limited opportunities to explore creative outlets. While I am sure that all magnet schools are not implemented the same way, I was still saddened by the implications for the students in the school. I always wondered if they were learning that if they did not come from the best circumstances, that they should accept that they would have less.
A good library program can make a difference for students when regular classroom instruction needs to be enhanced. I believe that teaching students about hard work and providing them with a variety of skill-building creative experiences that can be applied to curriculums helps students to understand their potential. There is research that supports my beliefs.
Studies that Support Early STEM Intervention
While there are plenty of studies to choose from, here are two examples of how early STEM interventions help students. Study 1 examines 4th- and 5th-grade students. Study 2 was for 1st-grade students.
Thirty-two 4th- and 5th-grade girls completed a program after school and during the summer designed to introduce them to STEM concepts. The participants had access to mentors, equipment, and hands-on learning experiences. The researchers implemented the program to study the girls’ short-term academic gain and how the program influenced the girls’ interest in STEM careers. An experimental research design was implemented to compare the girls in the program to a contrast group. The results indicated that the girls performed significantly higher on the post-tests that were administered. Eight years later, a follow-up study was conducted with the same group of girls when they entered college. Though many of the original participants were not available, findings of the study noted that when compared to a contrast group again, the original study subjects had “a much stronger awareness, appreciation, and confidence with science” (Tyler-Wood, Ellison, Lim, & Periathiruvadi, 2012, p. 53).
Another study of 1,387 students in 1st grade in 62 classrooms employed a quasi-experimental design to determine if a curriculum focused on engineering and the biography of a scientist positively impacted the academic achievement, engineering knowledge, and engineering engagement of low-income students. The researchers argued that low-income students frequently have a shortage of STEM career role models. However, one way to counteract the lack of role models is by introducing them to role models by using media and biographies.
The results of this study noted that the curriculum and using biographies to provide role models for the students increased the students’ “knowledge of engineers and their reported engagement in engineering activities” (Robinson, Adelson, Kidd, & Cunningham, 2018, p. 139). Teachers that implemented the curriculum were also able to use the activities for spotting students that were candidates for gifted and talented programs. In this way, the program helped to address under-representation in curricular intervention opportunities and talent development early in the students’ academic careers.
As librarians, we are already addressing STEM learning in many ways such as curriculum support, makerspace access, before and after-school programs, and the Libraries Ready to Code initiative. We understand more than ever that one of our roles is to provide equal access to resources. Yet, my work this school year has brought up a sense of urgency in my being. Fourth grade is a great place to start with STEM interventions. But we are shortchanging our children and ourselves if we believe that pre-kindergarten and kindergarten are too early to start helping our children to understand STEM careers. They will understand if we teach them.
Robinson, A., Adelson, J. L., Kidd, K. A., & Cunningham, C. M. (2018). A talent for tinkering: Developing talents in children from low-income households through engineering curriculum. Gifted Child Quarterly, 62(1), 130-144. doi:10.1177/0016986217738049
Tyler-Wood, T., Ellison, A., Lim, O., & Periathiruvadi, S. (2012). Bringing up girls in science (BUGS): The effectiveness of an afterschool environmental science program for increasing female students’ interest in science careers. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 21(1), 46-55. doi:10.1007/s10956-011-9279-2
Note: The photo in this post was purchased from DepositPhotos.com.
Author: Daniella Smith
Daniella Smith, PhD. is a former school and public librarian. She is currently the Hazel Harvey Peace Professor in Children’s Library Services at the University of North Texas.