STEM Learning Ecologies
Updated: Sep 28
In this podcast, Jayson Cooper and Nicola Yelland fro m the Melbourne Graduate School of Education look into the incorporation of STEM from an early childhood context.
STEM learning ecologies
Jayson Cooper and Nicola Yelland, MGSE.
[Not to be reproduced]
The acronym STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths coming together to both make a big new idea from existing disciplines, and so that the learning could be made more relevant to using these disciplines in our everyday lives. STEM gave educators the opportunity to integrate the concepts (the ideas) and processes (the skills and applications) that are usually taught as separate school subjects. This encourages a holistic and practical view rather than seeing them as separate things. It was hoped that this inquiry-based approach would be interesting to students who would be able to see why they were learning topics and how they might use them.
As early childhood educators we think this way of learning is especially relevant to young children from birth to 8 years of age. So, Nicola Yelland came up with the idea that STEM in the early years should be about designing active learning ecologies, or places to learn, that connect with children’s natural curiosity about their world. This is very important when we want to think about how we can be inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sciences and scientific knowledges. This knowledge and ways of understanding the world is always already located where we play, learn, eat, and sleep. First Nations Country is always holding us and our communities; our worlds. The main idea of importance here is that STEM Learning Ecologies engage children and teachers in authentic investigations with Country enmeshed together; using critical and creative thinking in systematic ways to build knowledge, acquire skills and cultivate confident dispositions for learning.
STEM is important today because our early childhood centres and schools can encourage and promote entrepreneurship and innovation by creating contexts for children to become confident and competent learners with Indigenous knowledge in our everyday. We know that effective learners use interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to generate innovative ideas and explore solutions but often times in schools it is not well taught, or explained and students cannot see how they can make use of it. How can we connect deep science knowledges with the learning ecologies of Indigenous Country and knowledges, this becomes the challenge for STEM education in our present day.
So STEM in early childhood is focussed on playing with ideas and being engaged in explorations. We think that building STEM learning capacities starts before school – at home and in early childhood centres, where play-based learning fits really well with the big ideas of STEM learning. Also what is different about learning today is that it is recognised as being multimodal – that means we can learn and build knowledge in a variety of ways including by talking (linguistic or oral modality) by drawing (visual modality) by listening (aural modality) by moving (or kinesthetic modality) and by making music to share, and we do these things in different places, or ecologies, like in classrooms, in communities (cities and country) in our family spaces and in fact in any location that we find ourselves. This is important to consider when we want to bring together Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientific knowledges.
For teachers, thinking about STEM education in the early years requires being creative about designing curriculum, it requires consideration of pedagogies (how we teach) and of assessment. Reflective practitioners can think about their existing practices and plan to transform their teaching and learning ecologies to encourage STEM ways of thinking. These learning ecologies include people and places and must think with Indigenous STEM cultural knowledge. Learning Ecologies go beyond just providing space and resources for early learning, they open ways we are related through STEM learning. They are really paying attention to the ways in which children, as active learners, interact and talk with their educators, explore their environments, and engage with Indigenous worldviews and use many types of materials in their explorations. Learning ecologies are exploratory places, they enable teachers to use more varied strategies for learning than just intentional, or direct teaching methods. They can be more flexible and responsive to dynamic and changing learning ecologies and sensitive to individual and collaborative deep learning. And STEM Learning Ecologies is a framework, an idea, that can be reconciliation too if you think about learning with Indigenous knowledge and culture as opposed to learning about.
We always view children as capable and contributing learners who are:
n Articulate: (that is) Able to communicate their ideas, feelings and discoveries in different ways, showing how they understand and make meaning in their lifeworlds.
n Respectful: Working collaboratively within communities of practice, listening and questioning and striving for common and multiple goals in their explorations
n Knowledgeable: Being able to support their plans and actions with accurate and relevant data to illustrate logical and creative thinking in diverse contexts, from an ethical perspective.
So what does this look like in a classroom and how can Indigenous STEM knowledge be foregrounded in teaching and learning? Karen Martin a Qandamooka teacher and author reminds us that in acknowledgement there is knowledge. This is the first place to begin, by acknowledging Country, for example, here on the lands of the Kulin Nation there is deep ecological, scientific, numeracy, design and engineering knowledges everywhere around us. STEM Learning is everywhere. We can acknowledge seasons, micro-seasons, big deep weather seasons, or moon/sun/star patterns as some examples and in these there are always First Nations knowledges we can explore and live with, not only in the past but also after right up to this present day.
STEM Learning Ecologies open many ways we can think and question together with our schools and communities and places. We do this by thinking, Doing & Sharing : being critical and creative and setting challenges that can require more than one solution and different ways to achieve goals, it is an entangled inquiry process with no beginning or end, its a living inquiry. This also needs learners to be given chances to engage in reasoning and figuring out different possibilities, noticing, asking questions and using exploratory and play based actions to learn in a really deep and slow ways, always in relation to Indigenous Country and knowledge. It is also about collecting and analysing data in multimodal formats and communicating with others about what we have found. For example, thinking about our local place, connecting with Country, which is not some distant place in the bush, but is also the highly developed and populated areas like cities: Country always speaks, we just need to listen.
What do you teach and engage learners in STEM at your school?
How do you promote authentic ways of Being, Thinking, Doing, and Communicating through STEM education?
What ideas could you add to your existing STEM foundations that could build relational learning ecologies, what do you need to do this?
Where can you see and hear children's theories when designing inquiry?
What are your relations with different materials and places (Country) when learning about STEM? and how are they communicated?
Are there any new mediums/modalities/processes you and your students would like to explore when creating authentic STEM Learning Ecologies?