A group of adults pose for a photo

Bridging The Gap: Empowering Early STEM Education in Washington County

Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023

When a rubber ball is dropped into a pool of water, will it float? How about a wooden toy? Now ask yourself, why does it sink or why does it float ? This serves as just one illustration among the numerous lessons early childhood educators can employ to establish a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for young learners.

In today’s rapidly evolving world, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education is more important than ever, especially for our youngest learners. However, in Washington County and across the country,  there has been a noticeable and harmful gap in early STEM education, due to a  lack of support in training both educators and the trainers that support educators. In response to this challenge, our Early Learning Washington County team has been working to foster a love for STEM among children in their formative years, no matter their economic background, language or culture. The Training for Trainers program empowers a growing cohort of multilingual, culturally relevant trainers to facilitate accreditation and continued education for preschool providers across the county.

“The future will be shaped by curiosity,” said Dorila Nava, a member of the 2022 cohort who was hired on this year as a Spanish language facilitator. “Teaching STEM will change the future, it helps create that curiosity, teaching children to learn and think in a different way and always be curious and prepared.”

The Current Landscape

The backbone of any educational ecosystem is its teachers, but those teachers also need continued education and support to deliver the best possible classes to our community’s youth. In Washington County, there is a deficit of facilitators certified to deliver trainings to licensed child care providers and that there are even fewer who offer trainings in non-English languages.

Dorila flips through a book, showing a group of kids and parents its images.
Dorila uses her new training to share STEAM knowledge with kids and adults at ELWC's STEAM Maniac event.

This lack of accessible trainings leads to fewer opportunities for educators to receive culturally speicifc and culturally sensitive continued education as well as a lack of opportunities to receive training in STEM specific areas.  

However, ELWC’s Training for Trainers program is directly addressing this lack  of trainers.  This July the cohort graduated and presented the NGSS 101 (Next Generation of Science Standards in Early Learning) workshop to the public - child care providers, professionals and parents were present. This is also the first year the cohort classes were all offered in both English and Spanish.  ELWC paid for translations and hired Spanish speaking facilitators from last year's cohort. There were 9 graduates this year and 10 last year, and some of the participants spoke Spanish, Arabic, Dutch, Chinese, reflecting that lingual diversity of Washington County.

“During the training, I try to motivate the teachers to try and challenge themselves and think outside the picture they were seeing,” said Nava. “What else can we add, what are the needs of the kids who are in the community, how I can I make things easier to learn, more practical and fun?”

Participants received a $600  stipend for participating in 2022’s cohort and a $1000 stipend in 2023 (as well as an added six hours of trainings and coaching support in 2023) underscoring the value of their commitment. Beyond their accreditation, they’ve co-facilitated sections of the STEM Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) 101 workshop (a necessary curriculum for educators looking to teach STEM to young children). These newly graduated trainers are already making huge impacts in Washington County, with several returning to the program to train more trainers, creating exponential benefits to the early education ecosystem.

Championing Early STEM

Martina Jallad is one of those trainers, who has developed a Set Two workshop about STEM that she will teach in Arabic this December.

“A lot of early childhood learning comes straight from us, the adults,” Jallad said. “If we talk to them in a way that gives them the identity of an explorer, a scientist, an engineer, if we give them those words and confidence, that’s the best start. But first we must give that language and confidence to their teachers, their parents.”

The first order of business for these trainers is to make educators reassess how daunting STEM education is, a main goal of the cohort training content. For many early educators, the thought of teaching engineering to kids can be scary, but according to Jallad and other trainers, a lot of educators are already doing it, but just don’t realize it.

“I want to teach the educator not to have that fear of the unknown and explore alongside the children they teach. To bring that awareness to teaching staff and preschool providers that they are already doing it!” Jallad said. “Children come across things they don’t know about all the time, all you need to do is encourage that curiosity, ask them open ended questions and follow the direction the children take. Then build on that learning.”

She mentions a story about children playing outside and finding a caterpillar. She tells trainers that’s the perfect, organic moment to teach them about science, go grab a magnifying glass and let them look closely. Then tell them about the lifecycle of butterflies in the classroom later. These STEM lessons present themselves in a variety of ways throughout the day, but many educators lack the tools and materials to explore them further. This is especially true when teaching STEM in languages other than English.

“Early childhood education is, in general, not a field of study in most Arabic countries,” Jallad, who is from Syria, said. “Oftentimes these countries don’t recognize these critical years, the crucial brain growth and learning that happens in these years.”

This means Jallad and other trainers offering STEM NGSS workshops in Arabic, Spanish or other languages need to seek out, edit and sometimes create materials that can be distributed to educators in Washington County.  This is a challenge that persists for early educators across the country seeking resources in languages other than English.

“When there are resources, they’re not necessarily correct, this work takes a lot of time so initiatives like Training for Trainers needs to continue over a long period of time,” Jallad continued.

Closing the Gap and Looking Forward

All this work is undergirded by the knowledge that a strong foundation in STEM during a child’s early years can profoundly reduce achievement gaps and address the lack of diversity and representation in STEM fields. Despite the work ELWC and their cohorts of trainers are already doing, there’s much more to be done to ensure Washington County’s youth are treated to top-tier STEM education.

“We need to bring this to the community, the parents, promote it through community events and more,” Nava said. “Parents can learn this through the eyes of their children, but they need support to do so.”

Nava encourages families to go out into nature, take a walk with their kids and respond to their curiosity. She said families can talk to their children about the weather, and explore alongside them. But it can’t all rest on the willingness and availability of parents, Washington County needs to continue funding work like what ELWC is doing, as well as expand it and better support educators and trainers. More trainers are needed to make early STEM learning accessible.

“There are a huge number of kids who aren’t covered by this yet, because there isn’t enough providers  who can teach them,” Nava concluded

The Training for Trainers cohort helps build out an ecosystem of support for early educators, preschool providers, parents and children that can ensure a better understanding of STEM and encourage better learning outcomes that are fun, engaging and rewarding for the community.

As we look to the future, ELWC's initiatives promise to continue bridging the gap in early STEM education, ensuring that all children in Washington County have the opportunity to explore the wonders of science, technology, engineering and mathematics from their earliest days. Through diversification of facilitators, curriculum development, and ongoing support, ELWC is pioneering a path towards a brighter and more inclusive future for STEM education in early learning. What can you do to help support this work?

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