STEM Starters+ finds engineering lessons help first-graders

STEM Starters+ researchers including from left Dr. Jill L. Adelson, external evaluator, University of Louisville, Kristy Kidd, project director, Jodie Mahony Center, University of Arkansas at Little Rock Dr. Ann Robinson, principal investigator, Jodie Mahony Center, School of Education, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

After extensive investigation through the STEM Starters+ program, researchers at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock found that even at the first-grade level, students can benefit from engineering lessons.

Students who participated in the STEM Starters+ lessons not only developed a greater understanding of engineering, but they also learned more science and were more highly engaged in learning.

“We have some really spectacular results from this study,” said Dr. Ann Robinson, professor of educational psychology and UALR Jodie Mahony Center for Gifted Education. “Before these students can even spell engineer, they can learn about it.”

Robinson led the project as principal investigator in collaboration with the Museum of Science in Boston. She was joined by project director Kristy Kidd of UALR and external evaluator Dr. Jill Adelson of the University of Louisville.

STEM Starters+ is a five-year, $2.5 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It began with researchers introducing engineering curricula into four Arkansas school districts with high rates of culturally diverse and low-income children. Those school districts included Cabot, El Dorado, Little Rock, and the Pulaski County Special School District.

“To put the increases of engineering knowledge results from this study in context, we found that STEM Starters+ produced effects approximately 50 percent greater than many other STEM curriculum interventions in education,” Robinson said.

Prior to STEM Starters+, the school districts included in the study did not provide first-graders with engineering lessons. Researchers investigated whether students could be exposed to and engage in engineering programs at a much earlier age than is typical in elementary school education.

“We have uncovered academic talents in young children through exposure to curriculum focused on the engineering design process and innovative thinking,” Robinson said. “Our approach is particularly important for low-income children who have had to develop talents for tinkering and improvising at an early age.”

Researchers analyzed data for more than 1,300 students in 62 first-grade classrooms in 18 schools. They investigated the effects of the program by comparing students participating in STEM Starters+ and those learning science and math as usual.

Both groups were assessed using a science content test constructed using resources from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Students who participated in the STEM Starters+ curricula also completed an emotional and behavioral engineering engagement test following the program.

“The new study of STEM Starters+ clearly shows that primary school children can increase their science achievement and engineering knowledge when provided with this exceptional learning opportunity,” said Ann Bain, dean of the UALR College of Education and Health Professions.

“The participating teachers utilized the knowledge and skills gained through our professional development in order to make a positive difference in the lives of these children,” Bain said. “The research and project implementation have had amazing results that will hopefully result in future engineers and scientists.”

In the future, the project will include further studies of children ranging from second to fifth grade.

“Our collaboration with the Museum of Science, in charge of developing the engineering curricula implemented as part of STEM Starters+, provides us with the opportunity to learn a great deal more about how young children learn engineering, what engages them, and how schools can incorporate engineering design and innovation into classrooms,” Robinson said.

For more information, contact Robinson at aerobinson@ualr.edu or visit the project’s website.

Pictured above, Researchers involved in the STEM Starters+ project. From left: Dr. Jill L. Adelson, external evaluator, University of Louisville, Kristy Kidd, project director, Jodie Mahony Center, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Dr. Ann Robinson, principal investigator, Jodie Mahony Center, School of Education, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Contributed photo. 

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