Teacher Q&A: Early years STEM project

It's STEM month here at Teacher. In a previous article we brought you news of the Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) Pilot – a 12 month research project exploring the impact of play-based program aimed at engaging preschool students in learning activities associated with STEM thinking. In this follow-up we speak to Sharon de Rooy from Bonython Primary School in the Australian Capital Territory, one of 300 educators involved in the pilot in 100 preschools.

Can you start by sharing a little bit about your school?

I'm a preschool teacher at Bonython Primary School in the ACT. We are a public preschool and form part of a P-6 school. Our current enrolment stands at 360 students with a teaching, administration and support staff of 42. Our preschool unit comprises three educators (two teachers and one assistant) and 44 students across two classes. Our students can access 30 hours of preschool over a fortnightly period. To date, 28 of our 44 families have given consent for their child to participate in the ELSA pilot. Our school focuses heavily on inquiry learning and promoting a growth mindset. Striving to help students make authentic connections to both local community and an ever-changing global world is paramount to our cause. Students and teachers alike are given agency and ample opportunities to continue their learning and follow their passions.

Why did the school volunteer to take part in the pilot and what are you hoping to gain from it?

Early in 2017, I heard about the ELSA Pilot via an email from the Preschool Teachers Professional Association, providing a link to apply [and] an invitation to attend a professional learning afternoon at the University of Canberra on STEM in the Early Years. I visited the ELSA site, applied for the pilot and enrolled myself and Karen (another preschool teacher at Bonython) in the professional learning. At the outset I was hoping to deepen my understanding of what STEM was all about and gather ideas on how to best incorporate it into my preschool program.

Is STEM learning (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) something you've looked at in preschool before? Is this already a focus for the school in the primary years?

Prior to attending that initial workshop afternoon with Kym Simoncini (Assistant Professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education at the University of Canberra) and the ELSA team, I had heard of STEM – it certainly seemed to be the latest ‘buzz' word in education. I knew what the acronym stood for, but honestly didn't know too much more than that. I began a little research of my own and discovered that so much of what happens in a preschool classroom is enriched with STEM practices – students being naturally curious, imaginative, creative, solving problems, designing, building, working together and questioning. Yes, STEM was indeed alive and well, it was happening all around me, I just hadn't named it or made those deeper connections, and I hadn't always taken the opportunities, when they availed themselves to me, to use the children's experiences and explorations in play to extend, deepen, consolidate and optimise their learning. Today, largely due to my involvement in the ELSA Pilot and my own growing understanding of the significance of developing STEM practices in early childhood, I'm very mindful of my pedagogical practice, especially in regards to seizing those spontaneous teaching moments when they occur – and absolutely running with them!

I was thrilled when I learned that our preschool had been selected as one of the 100 schools across the nation to participate in the ELSA pilot, and one of only five preschools chosen in the ACT. We received 100 per cent support from our Principal Greg Terrell to be involved with the project, along with financial assistance from our school to purchase new iPads. STEM is undeniably a focus throughout our primary school here at Bonython. Inquiry based learning and STEM go hand-in-hand. … Our students are encouraged to and guided to inquire, to create, design, evaluate, revisit, research, predict, experiment, problem solve, persist, communicate and, importantly, to collaborate.

STEM topics can be daunting for primary educators. Have you been able to access PD and collaborate with other educators?

Yes, the STEM workshop provided by the University of Canberra in March 2017 hooked me in and the ELSA PD in Brisbane sold me – it was second to none! The presenters were so invested in the project, helping us all to get our heads around the importance of what we were doing, the importance of STEM in the early years, and how to start doing it once we returned to our preschools. They were animated and engaged and their passion was palpable. In Brisbane, I was able to connect with other teachers, share my story and set up links to stay in touch, particularly with people in the ACT. I can't wait until I go to Perth in August for the next instalment.

I have also been fortunate enough to be part of a Digital Technologies Champions Team, which began roughly at the same time as the ELSA Pilot. This initiative aims at building teacher capacity and supporting the implementation of Digital Technologies across the school through training as, well as access to relevant PD. [This learning] and my journey in STEM – through being part of the ELSA pilot – completely complement each other. I really have been most privileged – doors have opened up for me, my confidence has deepened, along with my own understanding of digital technologies.

Through participation in professional development, completing the CSER MOOC training, attending conferences and joining relevant Google Communities, I have also shared my ideas, and learned from the ideas of others. Along the way I have met and listened to inspirational leaders (such as the likes of Sir Ken Robinson), who continue to challenge my thinking and move me to be the best that I can be.

The ELSA Pilot began at the start of 2018. What's happened so far in terms of some of the teaching and learning activities?

Throughout the year we have continued to provide our students with a host of learning activities and experiences related to ‘Patterns and Relationships', the first ELSA topic. We used the Experience, Represent, Apply method, as outlined in the educator app, with great success. Here, students get to physically experience an idea first, such as sorting things according to attributes, then they get to explore and represent that idea on an app (for example, sorting lunch boxes) and then they get to apply that understanding using different materials and resources in an authentic way. Our students are now confidently transferring their learnings about Patterns and Relationships into other contexts, and delight in sharing the connections they have made. They are finding patterns in the world around them, both natural and man-made, and they are choosing to create and recreate patterns in their drawings and paintings and with assorted materials like beads, rocks, sticks, blocks and toys. Last week I was called over excitedly by two students to come and see the caterpillar they had found crawling along the ramp outside: 'Look Mrs de Rooy, he has a pattern on his back!' We had to take this photo to show everyone.

School support for refugee students

[Image supplied]

We have put together a folder of all the different STEM activities we have used to show our developing understanding of Patterns and Relationships. One day our Echidna class thought about all the ways we could sort our shoes according to various attributes.

School support for refugee students

[Image supplied]

As the teacher, what have been the highlights for you so far?

Just seeing my preschoolers' learning come to life, through their engagement in playful pursuits as they make authentic connections, rejoice in their work, explain it and share it with others and knowing that, yes, I had something to do with all of that.

Earlier this year a little boy made a flying carpet at the maker space table. First, he designed it on a whiteboard with a clear idea in his mind of what he wanted it to look like, then he researched it on the internet, talked about it with the class, gathered resources and began the build. He had to tweak it, redesign it, make predictions, solve a host of problems, persist with it and ask for advice, help and the ideas of others. Over the course of the day a whole design process unravelled before my eyes, and eventually so too did the flying carpet, held triumphantly in the hands of a very proud little boy! That's what it's all about folks, that's it, that's why I am a here, those amazing highlights. Was I blown away? Yes, but you know what, the best thing is tomorrow I'll be blown away all over again.

It's still early days, but what has the initial response been from students and parents to date?

Overwhelmingly positive. Our students have loved working through the apps – their favourite is the Lunch Box app, followed closely by Let's Decorate, which is all about creating, completing and describing patterns. Students regularly ask if they can play on the ELSA apps and are now at the stage where they can navigate most apps on the Patterns and Relationships site independently. Parents have been kept largely informed about the pilot through our Google Community, where they can view photos and videos of students in real time engaged in both on- and off-app ELSA activities. I am excited and look forward to the next steps in this journey – I urge you all to ‘watch this space!'

Preschool teacher Sharon de Rooy says sharing her ideas and learning from the ideas of others has been an important part of her own PD. When was the last time you collaborated and shared ideas with your colleagues? What about educators outside your own school? How often do you seek out the ideas and expertise of others?