Author Q&A: Allison Bemiss Talks STEAM Education for Young Learners
Author Q&A: Allison Bemiss Talks STEAM Education for Young Learners
PUBLISHED: Thursday, September 19, 2019 by Andilynn Feddeler

Inspiring Innovation and Creativity in Young Learners helps teachers and other educational stakeholders to promote innovative thinking in children in Pre-K through grade 3. The book shares steps that teachers can take to transform the learning experience, encourage critical and creative thinking in students, and implement STEAM mini-lessons that bridge the gap from play-based learning to innovation. Learn more about the book and how to lead STEAM investigations in this interview with the author, Allison Bemiss.


Q: What are the benefits of introducing young children to STEAM concepts?

A: Young children are curious little thinkers, eager to explore their environment! Children ask hundreds of questions a day and likely wonder more than they can verbalize. Therefore, early childhood is the perfect time to introduce STEAM concepts to children. An introduction to STEAM education and concepts at a young age not only helps lay the foundation for content they will study later in their educational career, thereby, building the schema they will need to tackle higher order concepts, but also gives children an authentic opportunity to develop social-emotional skills and critical and creative thinking skills. 

 

Q: How can teachers implement “minds-on, hands-on” investigations in the classroom?

A: Minds-on, hands-on instruction can seem challenging to implement at first, but is well worth the effort. Management and materials are two of the greatest concerns that I hear from educators (and that I face in my own classroom experiences!). Here are a few tips.

  • Management: 

    • Start small. Students need choice, but they don’t need to start out with 1,000 choices. It’s hard for them to focus on the project if they are overwhelmed by the number of choices. Begin with only one or two materials and let them practice making choices when there are fewer options. 

    • Organize, Organize, Organize. Making choices and tidying up can be difficult in even the best environments. Materials need to be organized in a container that is clearly labeled or reserved for that item. This makes cleanup a breeze for kids. 

    • Plan for the mess. If you are doing activities that involve water, put out only as much water as you are comfortable with the child cleaning up. Also, put out a broom, dustpan, towels or anything else at the kids’ level. Plan for the mess by planning for the cleanup. We want the child to not only feel responsible for the minds-on learning, but also take pride in the environment. Expecting them to help tidy up is a great life lesson for little learners.

  • Money:

    • Don’t spend a fortune. Minds-on is the ultimate goal of any hands-on activity. The good news here is minds-on doesn’t cost much money… and sometimes it costs no money! Don’t get hung up on the latest product for sale in that STEAM catalogue. Children often explore best with materials they collect from nature walks, or recycled materials like boxes or wrapping paper tubes. 

    • Do buy or collect trays and small containers/boxes to sort materials. If you want examples of what great minds-on, hands-on learning spaces look like, search for Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia examples. They can give you great ideas for how to organize your next minds-on, hands-on lesson. 

 

Q: What are some of the unique challenges in teaching young children to innovate and think like scientists or engineers?

A: One unique challenge that educators have begun to face in recent years for teaching innovation and creative thinking to little learners is the mindset from others about what higher order thinking should look like. It DOES NOT look like children working independently on some worksheet. It most often looks like organized chaos or play! When you walk into a classroom where students are learning to think like scientists or engineers you should see them exploring, talking to one another, agreeing and disagreeing respectfully, making a mess, cleaning it up, and trying again! It definitely should not look like all children doing exactly the same thing, and this goes against the grain of what some people expect. 

The second unique challenge that comes to mind is language. Although little learners are eager to test and explore, the notion of how to communicate their ideas is sometimes difficult. One thing that I usually do that is extremely helpful is teach them (and model) sentence starters to share their ideas and thinking. Sentence starters like “I wonder, I notice, I learned, I think” can really give children the language tool they need to share their ideas effectively. 

 

Q: How can teachers create a learning environment that encourages exploration and innovation?

A: Build. A. Classroom. Community. I cannot stress this enough. Students must feel comfortable taking risks in your classroom if they are to work at higher levels and persevere through challenges. Your classroom should feel like a family. You celebrate together. You have rituals and routines. You fail and try again, together. Little learners should also be taught mindfulness strategies. We cannot expect an authentic growth mindset experience (as in learning from failure) without teaching children how to emotionally deal with failure. Learning how to take time to calm down and breathe is a lifelong skill that can and should be taught as a part of the innovative and creative classroom curriculum. 

Through your actions and words, establish the belief that ALL children are explorers. All children are scientists. All children are engineers. If you say and show this often enough, the children will own this idea also. As the parent of a little learner with cerebral palsy, nothing made me happier than the day I saw him participating with his hand on top of another child’s as they dissected a seed together. (This story is shared in the early pages of Inspiring Innovation and Creativity in Young Learners.) 

The physical environment should be reflective of the child’s interest and units of study. For example, as I share in Inspiring Innovation and Creativity in Young Learners, if children are working as engineers or scientists, make lab coats from oversized t-shirts! It not only protects their clothing, but is also a simple idea that really helps children transform into the type of thinker you are asking them to be. There should be materials that the child can explore independently. Materials and student work should also be hung at the child’s level, not the teacher’s level. There should be dedicated space for whole-group meetings, small-group meetings, and independent work. Space in a classroom is often limited, so beach towels or small rugs will work well as a moveable and easily storable way to give children an identified independent or small-group work space. 

 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your work?

A: Inspiring innovation and creativity through STEAM education is a critical experience for young learners. Through explorations like those featured in Inspiring Innovation and Creativity in Young Learners and Hands On STEAM Explorations for Young Learners, little learners will learn to think at high levels while engaged in age-appropriate explorations. These experiences will build classroom community, lay the foundation for higher learning in later years, and inspire deeper problem-solving skills. 

 

 

Allison Bemiss has worked to encourage innovative thinking in early childhood and elementary-age children for nearly 15 years, while serving as a teacher, interventionist, and education consultant. She currently works for The Center for Gifted Studies at Western Kentucky University as project coordinator for Little Learners, Big Ideas and for the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative developing workshops for early childhood and elementary educators.