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An ELSA program primer from its creator

As Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation catchphrase fades into white noise, STEM education programs silently persist. And, with the testing phase of the Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) apps imminent, STEM is about to be as omnipresent in childcare centres as it is in classrooms.

The $5.8 million ELSA project is part of the government’s drive to equip children with skills of the future. They say 75 per cent of the fastest-growing industries require mathematical, technological and scientific capabilities.

Recruitment of 100 test preschools begins next year. For these guinea-pig centres, what will the ELSA apps do? Can toddlers be taught tech?

Early Learning Review spoke with centenary professor Tom Lowrie of the University of Canberra. He leads the team at the university’s STEM Education Research Centre – the apps’ content developers.

I understand the ELSA program involves six apps. Can you tell me about each one?

We have developed six learning apps for early years learning, which is defined as the year before school. Four of those apps will be for preschool children. One app will be for the educators of those children, and one app will be for the parents of the children.

The content is going to be associated with STEM practices.

An example of an activity in the app is one that allows children to augment their experience of going to a park. Children can locate the park before they leave, they can identify a path they would take, and then they can take a device with them, which can track the path they took. Once there, they might take a photo of one of the activities or of one of the things in the park they’re playing with, and that snapshot can be seamlessly dropped into the app for them.

All of the activities we will be doing on the apps will be active learning.

Why did you decide to make play-based learning the foundation of the kids’ apps?

What we’re certainly not going to do is try to develop activities that put children in school before school starts.

One of the most amazing and beneficial things about learning before school is that it’s open-ended, it’s flexible, it’s directed around the children’s needs. For very young children, that is the best way to learn and it’s the most effective way to develop some of these STEM skills.

That’s something we’re really, really passionate about, and we want to make sure that we do well. There are lots of [similar] learning experiences people do in industry. For example, if someone’s working at Google … or a company like that where they are encouraged to be flexible with their thinking and solve problems together and experiment with things, they’re encouraged to have failures, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes and talk to one another about that.

Why choose an app to deliver STEM education for young children? Why not make it teacher-delivered?

Basically, the apps are … learning environments. That will be particular things that an app on a tablet can do … that can’t be replicated by a face-to-face mode of teaching. For example, there apps that use sensors that allow you to navigate and track where you’ve been. There’s a camera on a tablet that an app can use. There are many other technological facilities as well; in fact, there are 14 different sensors on any given tablet.

These things will complement and enhance what the teacher does.

What are the benefits of starting to teach kids STEM when they’re so young?

We want these children to be inspired and enjoy these learning experiences. Then, we hope, they can remain increasingly aware of those sorts of things as they move into school.

How will the skills learnt via ELSA transfer to STEM learning at school?

When they get to school, we hope, they’ve got a whole range of strategies and approaches to think about and undertake so that when some difficult concepts or learning take place, they’re more fully equipped for that. That’s where the fun can remain, we hope, rather than them thinking ‘Oh no, this is too hard, I don’t like this anymore.’

We can then get to a point where people start saying, ‘Hey, why can’t we now do this in the lower levels of primary school? Hey, we should be doing this in upper primary as well.’

Centenary Professor Tom Lowrie. Photo: University of Canberra

Centenary professor Tom Lowrie. Photo: University of Canberra

The ELSA pilot program will commence in 2018.

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