For years, the Obama Administration has been pushing the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math — known as STEM — in many of its programs. And for years, the Administration has also been emphasizing the importance of early learning. Both of those missions came together last Friday when U.S. Secretary of Education John King stood up in front of a crowd of early STEM educators to open the first-ever early learning and STEM Learning Symposium at the White House.  

“As we think about how we close our achievement gaps and our very real diversity gaps in the STEM field,” King said, “part of how we do that is ensuring quality early STEM experiences so that children have that foundation of vocabulary and background knowledge that will help them as readers and also help their success in the STEM fields.”

King charged both public and private initiatives at the symposium to think about how STEM can be integrated into early education classrooms in thoughtful and meaningful ways. He also urged his audience to focus on equitable access to high quality learning opportunities for high-needs students, like children from low-income neighborhoods and dual language learners, to help increase the number of underrepresented groups in the STEM field.

At the symposium, more than 200 public and private initiatives announced commitments to help promote early STEM. A White House fact sheet described these commitments as helping to move the country toward achieving the following five goals:   

  1. Building the research base about what works in early STEM learning, including promising practices, interventions, and teaching strategies;
  2. Supporting practitioners, including child care providers, home visitors, preschool teachers, and elementary school teachers, with STEM pedagogy and content knowledge;
  3. Supporting children and families in fostering STEM at home;
  4. Strategies and partnerships that foster STEM learning in informal settings (e.g., museums, libraries, zoos, media, toys); and
  5. Programs and partnerships that support children from low-income families in rural, tribal, and urban settings and children who may have less access to STEM experiences and education including girls, children of color, children with disabilities, children who are dual language learners, and homeless children.

The symposium was also an occasion for the U.S. Department of Education, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to call for public comment on a forthcoming technology policy statement. Russ Shilling, executive director for STEM at the education department, said he sees this as a key moment for building consensus across the field about appropriate ways to use technologies in early learning. The agencies are inviting comments and suggestions by 5 pm on May 13, 2016.

In late May, New America’s Education Policy Program and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop will host a follow-up convening to the White House Symposium. Early STEM research, policy, and practitioner leaders will exchange ideas, collaborate, and create an action plan to help young children develop the foundational STEM skills that will enable them to pursue careers in the STEM field.

As Roberto Rodríguez, Deputy Assistant to the President for Education, said during his opening speech at the symposium, “At the beginning of our Administration, President Obama set a goal to move our country from the middle back to the top of the pack internationally in STEM. And, that requires a strategy.” New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center hope to help create that strategy to help foster the next generation of STEM leaders.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Shayna Cook

Shayna Cook is a Program Associate with New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team where she researches and reports on a wide array of policy issues, concerning birth through third grade. She graduated from American University with a master’s degree in education, focusing on policy and leadership. She holds a bachelor’s degree in classics from Howard University.