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How Early Childhood STEM Exposure Influenced Today's Tech Giants

Watch a group of preschoolers working in a garden. It's cute, right? But it turns out they're learning more than you'd think. According to our new NSF-funded report, STEM Starts Early, co-published by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America, there's growing evidence that very young children from all backgrounds -- even children from birth to age 8 -- learn important science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills and habits of mind from everyday play and early learning activities. For example, by growing their own fruits and vegetables or even building forts and stacking blocks, children collect data, begin to develop strategies, solve problems, and learn to adjust their approach when things do not go as expected.

1. STEM benefits all children, regardless of their innate abilities or backgrounds.

What the research says

It's a common myth that STEM is only for certain kinds of kids -- those who are naturally gifted or driven in STEM subjects. But in fact, the research shows that STEM is important for all children and for all subject areas. Think of it this way: As we learn new skills, our brains weave skill strands into ropes we can use to solve problems, meet challenges, and, in turn, acquire new skills. STEM skills are vital in many kinds of skill ropes: When kids have opportunities to collect evidence and solve scientific problems, they build strong ropes that can be used in many ways, both now and later in life.

2. Children are born scientists and need adult support to realize and expand their natural STEM capacities.

What the research says

Many people believe very young kids can't do real STEM learning and should be focused on learning the "basics" first. But, as one researcher we interviewed put it, the reality is "[y]oung children are quite capable of doing, at a developmentally informed level, all of the scientific practices that high schoolers can do. They can make observations and predictions, carry out simple experiments and investigations, collect data, and begin to make sense of what they found." In fact, researchers have documented children conducting systematic experiments as early as the first year of life!

3. Children need STEM immersion as early as possible to gain STEM fluency.

What the research says

A common misconception is that "real" learning happens in the classroom, as opposed to informal settings such as museums, libraries, and summer camps. However, the research shows that just as people need to be immersed in a language to become fluent, children, too, need to be given many opportunities in many different settings to become fluent in STEM subjects. You can think of STEM learning opportunities like charging stations that power up kids' learning. If we increase the number of STEM charging stations in kids' environments, we will see more interest and fluency in STEM. Our current system is patchy; this explains why some children never develop STEM fluency, which has significant consequences for their overall learning.

4. Parent and teacher attitudes are incredibly influential for children's STEM outcomes.

What the research says

We often hear people say things like, "I can't support a child's STEM learning -- I'm not a STEM person!" Both teachers and parents can feel intimidated by STEM topics, and many feel anxious about supporting children's STEM learning. Almost one-third of parents, for example, do not feel confident enough in their own scientific knowledge to support hands-on science activities at home. But parents' and teachers' beliefs about STEM have a profound effect on young children. When they believe that it's too hard or it isn't as important as other topics, children pick up on this and come to believe it themselves.

Elon Musk used an early interest in computers to become one of the world’s most prominent tech magnates.

Elon Musk grew up in South Africa, and had a self-described “rough childhood.” However, he found an escape through his interest in computers and technology.

Around 10 years old, Elon began to teach himself how to program, and by the time he was 12, he created a video game called “Blastar.” (He would later sell the code to the magazine PC and Office Technology for $500. )

In 1992, Musk began to study business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania, and after graduating from Penn, he moved on to Stanford to pursue a PhD in energy physics. However, due to a little thing called the internet and technology boom taking place at the time in the Silicon Valley, he dropped out after just two days.

Musk would eventually launch his first company, Zip2 Corporation, and of course, has since assumed position as CEO of Tesla, and founder of SpaceX.

In contrast to Zuckerberg, Musk didn’t have a parent hand down exposure to STEM. Instead, he pursued it himself, as an interest – to start – and then turned it into something tangible in his very own video game.

His story is relatable in the sense that, anyone could learn to build a video game. And, the opportunities and tools at the disposal of today’s kids are more readily available then they have ever been.

Jeff Bezos showcased a maker’s mindset before creating Amazon.

As a child, Jeff Bezos showed an early interest in STEM, following an innate interest in learning how things worked. After using a screwdriver as a toddler to take his crib apart, and then building his own electrical alarm system to keep his siblings out of his bedroom, he quickly earned a reputation around his household as a little inventor. He set up a “workshop” in his parents garage, where he would continue to build his own toys and take household items apart to see how they worked.

In high school, Bezos further developed his love for technology and business when he started his first endeavor, the Dream Institute, an education summer camp for 4th-6th graders. Bezos went on to pursue his interest in computers at Princeton, where he studied computer science and electrical engineering. After initially pursuing – and succeeding in – a career in finance, Bezos would eventually quit to chase a passion of starting the online bookstore that would eventually become e-commerce giant, Amazon.

Again, where did it all start? By tinkering, really. It’s probably not fair to say Bezos went from a young maker in his family garage to the richest person in history, because there was a lot that happened in between, including a stint at McDonald’s as a 16-year-old. The point is though, he made the most of each opportunity along the way, whether that was exploring the inner workings of the household items he was taking apart or becoming enamored with automation of the golden arches.

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