Preparing future scientists and engineers

About 500 educators gathered in Costa Mesa this week to address ways to introduce science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM education, to preschoolers.

The Early Childhood STEM Conference, held from Thursday to Saturday at the Hilton Orange County, aims to show educators from across the state that it’s possible to teach young children about science and technology.

It’s all part of an effort to reduce the nation’s shortage of qualified candidates for math- and science-based fields.

The conference is a partnership among the Children’s Center at the California Institute of Technology, the Children and Families Commission of Orange County and the nonprofit THINK Together, said THINK Together spokesman Tony Dodero.

THINK Together works with schools, including those in Costa Mesa, to provide early-childhood education for low-income families, said Dodero, a former Daily Pilot editor.

For the past three years, Caltech has hosted the conference, but this year it came to Orange County in partnership with THINK Together and the Children and Families Commission.

The goal was to show early-childhood educators how to teach STEM through different methods.

“We know children learn through play, and we are masters at social and emotional development, but we need to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Susan Wood, executive director of the Children’s Center. “The conference is designed to focus their intention on providing science, engineering, technology and math opportunities through play.”

For example, students can learn about physics through games using ramps and pathways, she said.

Or they could learn about balance through block building or chemistry through cooking.

The conference featured a lab area where teachers could see firsthand how they can incorporate the methods in their classrooms.

“Early math education builds a foundation for high school,” Wood said. “Once you build a skill set, it becomes better and better. You start them behind and they never catch up. Math alone can stop a young person from succeeding in college.”

For the past 14 years, the Children’s Center has provided preschoolers of Caltech staff, professors and students with an education that incorporates STEM-based learning, Wood said.

“We speak every day, but we teach math as if it happens here and there,” Wood said. “And we want them to know that it’s everywhere, and we want to keep children’s sense of wonder alive.”

Wood said the United States is behind other nations in science and engineering, and President Obama has made it a priority to introduce STEM-based education at an early age and to encourage students to specialize in these fields in an effort to compete.

“We’re losing our edge in a worldwide market,” she said.

Elaine Coggins, the Anaheim City School District’s director of early-childhood education, said the conference is a great way of keeping up to date on STEM approaches.

“Our 3- and 4-year-olds are very capable of learning science and math, and this is the world they were born into,” Coggins said. “It’s a world of cellphones and iPads, and they need to be ready for that. We live in a country, and a world, that’s very hungry for scientists and engineers to see us into the future.”