CEI Robotics and STEM/STEAM Early Childhood Presentations in DC

By Mahnaz Ahrary and Drew Altizer, CEI Interns

Fight for Children: Joe Champs Summer Institute Conference June 22nd-23rd, 2016

‘The future belongs to a different kind
of person with a different kind of mind: designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers:
creative and empathic ‘˜right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line
between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.’
–Daniel Pink

Picture2Imagine jobs in the future and the skills needed for them. Eight out of 10 employers require degrees in various STEM fields (Dept. of Labor, 2009). STEM jobs have grown three times faster than non-STEM jobs in the past ten years. Daniel Pink (2009) describes the need for people in the workforce who are educated in STEM, are creative,  and have superior problem solving skills. CEI and others contend that STEM education plays an important role in preparing youth for the future. We also believe that preschool-Kindergarten, with its focus on exploration, curiosity, imagination, and play is the perfect place to begin this preparation.

On June 22nd and 23rd, the Joe Champs Summer Institute of Fight for Children featured CEI’s Dr. Mason and Orinthia Harris, a CEI Associate who leads Robotics and STEM related workshops for early childhood educators in Washington, DC. They conducted presentations on Teaching Robotics, and Leadership for STEM/STEAM.

Picture3Robotics. On the first day, the Robotics session sparked excitement and curiosity among the teacher participants, as Mrs. Harris dived into the pillars of a STEM/STEAM rich lesson. She pointed out the importance of intellectual understanding versus academic learning; where rote learning (repetition/memorization-based learning) is not as influential to individual creativity and problem solving. William Butler Yeats summarized this best when saying, ‘Education is not the filing of a pail but the lighting of a fire.’ It is through the process of understanding, that true passion for learning can begin.

Robotics and Early Childhood. Ms. Harris explained that learning robotics through designing and building allows for intellectual understanding; and although fancy gadgets could be useful in teaching robotics, these gadgets are definitely not necessary for engaging students in the creative process. Recommendations for the many ways to introduce robotics, included robotics through literacy (reading about robotics), designing and building, and teaching preschoolers about the concept of programming or coding.

At the workshop, teachers responded enthusiastically to a hands-on demonstration of designing and building actual robots made of ordinary objects (pipe cleaners, magnets, styrofoam containers, Legos, etc).  Teachers worked in groups to design and build a robots from simple, inexpensive materials such as tin cans and magnets.

Picture1STEM vs. Science.The second day covered the importance of STEM learning for creating an effective future workforce. Dr. Mason discussed the differences between STEM and science as a standalone subject.With STEM, integration across subject matter provides a forum for creative problem solving and practical application that can be highly engaging. Such a process also helps prepare students with the mindset needed for STEM careers. Engineering is particularly powerful in that it not only is hands-on, but it also views errors as important to the design process. Rather than viewing errors as mistakes to be abolished, errors provide an indicator that the ‘design’ needs to be improved. Thus, errors can stimulate creative problem solving. And of course if you add the “A” for art — STEAM — there are a myriad of activities that can be used in preschool – K learning centers.

STEAM and Preschool Children.position statement from the National Science Teachers Association on the value of STEM for early childhood. Participants were asked to consider times when they may have underestimated their students. One teacher explained how she was heading over to a play area to explain a task to one of the children, when a shy, soft-spoken student as part of the natural play process walked over to the child and very quickly and effectively explained what was needed.

Six Models of STEAM. During her presentation, Dr. Mason introduced six models of STEAM:

  • Nature based curriculums,
  • Incorporation of STEM and imaginative play,
  • The use of makerspaces
  • STEAM = STEM + Adding the ‘A’ for Arts
  • Parent/community involvement, and
  • Learning centers.

Picture2Using a gallery walk, teachers and leaders were given the opportunity to write down and share questions, ideas, brags, or resources. One teacher integrated nature into her curriculum by having the children plant seeds, determine when to harvest them, and use the harvest in the classroom. Another wrote that her school assigns creative play areas with blocks in every classroom in addition to having a larger designated play area that hosts ongoing building project

Fight for Children focuses on early childhood educators, offering programs to expose them to cutting edge techniques and strategic guidance and mentoring. Their Joe Champs conferences serve the DCPS public school, charter and independent school community by bringing together local practitioners and national experts to share best practices on specific topics.



Dept. of Labor. (2009). Statistics.

Pink, D. (2009). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.


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