I have just read the most amazing picture book: Christy Hale’s “Dreaming up: A celebration of building.” It is truly inspirational, built around the quote by architect Madhu Thangavelu, “If they can dream it, they can build it.” It also, in my mind, sends a strong message of a way to bolster the success of our schools’ STEM programs — in science, technology, engineering and math.
Most of the book consists of two-page spreads. On the left-hand pages, children (of several races and both genders) create cardboard box houses, sand castles, Lego creations — even toddlers stack cups and rings. Poems describing their projects mimic their shapes. On the right-hand pages, real-life architectural wonders do the same. For example, two childrens’ sandcastle, decorated with sea glass and shells, is mirrored by La Sagrada Familia, a Spanish basilica. The last four pages give information about the buildings and the experiences that inspired their architects.
STEM is increasingly becoming a priority in our state’s schools. There’s a lot of good stuff going on. Whether it’s Bangor High School’s mathletes, fourth- and fifth-graders in Surry designing, building and testing artificial legs, or Veazie middle-schoolers building fair ride models to illustrate physics principles, engaging the next generation in these vital disciplines is crucial. Not only can they go on to solve the many challenges of our world, they can, as Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine, continuously points out, create the technologies for new industries that can revitalize whole communities.
No matter how innovative our schools are, they can only be part of the story. One of the largest windows of opportunity for STEM curiosity and competence occurs largely before children set foot in a classroom. Helping our youngest start pre-kindergarten eager and ready for STEM offerings is one of the biggest challenges facing schools, communities and families.
We have a lot going for us. Our babies arrive hardwired for curiosity. They have a beautiful drive to make sense of this world they’re born into. That’s why we have to watch our toddlers so carefully. That’s why our preschoolers have so many “how” and “why” questions. To enable this beautiful, messy, wondrous process is to provide materials for discovery and periods of our undivided attention.
The materials don’t have to be fancy. Forget what educational toy makers say. They have a product to sell. Refer to the book. The classic toys like blocks and many nontoys — sand, mud, sofa cushions, cardboard boxes — are still the best you can offer at this age.
Sadly there are three forces working against us. The first is that children today are too often not allowed to play outside. Whether a national park or the wooded stream abutting a trailer park, the world of nature is the child’s first lab. The child peering into the depths of a tidal pool, watching ants at work or placing a leaf in a stream and seeing where it goes is setting the foundation for nothing less than the scientific method.
Second, the makers of many toys that are promoted heavily and displayed prominently in stores aren’t doing our kids any favors. Their products are often geared more toward financial profit and media tie-ins than developmental appropriateness. Scripted responses and lights and buzzers replace open-ended inquiry. Girls are encouraged to identify themselves as pretty, sexy consumers as in the TV show “Toddlers in Tiaras.” Let the buyer beware.
Finally, there is the assault on play noted by child psychologist David Elkind decades ago, which is, sadly, even more true today. A lot of companies are encouraging parents to skip right ahead to the academics and get Baby Einstein activity products. Not all of it is bad. But when electronics time is replacing hands-on exploration, that is a red flag.
Developmental psychologists characterize early childhood as a time of concrete operations. Young kids learn best with objects they can hold and manipulate. Rich and varied experiences of this sort make the brain later capable of more abstract thought. To bypass essential early steps is like building a house without a foundation.
So how do we take advantage of this window of opportunity? I have a modest suggestion. I would like to give STEM a sister acronym for our children’s earliest exploration and inquiry. Remember when you plant a seed, you don’t get a stem first. Your plant can’t even start a stem until it has developed good sturdy roots: “real life,” “observation based,” “timely” and “self directed.”
If our children develop strong ROOTS and go on to develop STEM abilities through hands-on, relevant experience in school, this process will bear fruit we can only begin to imagine. Achieving this will be quite the challenge. It will require many of us collaborating across town lines, profession lines, any lines you can think of.
You know what? If we can dream it, we can build it.
Julia Emily Hathaway, a Veazie school board member, is a life sciences geek whose early curiosity was strongly encouraged by her parents. Before she started high school she had collected insects in Mexico, dissected a wide range of road kill and successfully sutured her cat after he got cut up in a fight and her dad wouldn’t take him to a vet.