The Sentinel: Book: Early STEM funding key to state’s workforce
August 26, 2016

As we approach Labor Day, it is right to acknowledge the vital role that a skilled workforce plays in economic prosperity. However, the exact nature of those skills are changing.

Increasingly, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills demand attention because they are driving the economy. These jobs are high-paying, and they’re expected to grow by 20 percent to 37 percent in coming years. However, despite their desirability, STEM capabilities are lacking in the workforce. More than half of Pennsylvania employers report trouble finding people with adequate skills, training, or education, especially in technical and skilled job openings.

Now, researchers have opened a new window into our understanding of how those rudimentary math skills impact a lifetime of learning. The roots of STEM skills, we’re learning, are planted in early childhood. The capabilities in science, technology, engineering, and math that employers demand actually start forming when that small child is counting to 10.

Many admirable efforts to build STEM skills among students concentrate on middle and high school, but it’s time to turn our attention to the youngest learners. STEM skills truly do take root in the preschool years, as these findings show:

When disadvantaged children enter kindergarten, they can be 18 months behind their peers in math achievement. Early childhood education can help to close the gap, because those first three to five years of life are the time when children’s brains build synapses, the neural connections that support learning and skill development, at the rate of 700 per second.

Children are naturally curious, and strong early learning curricula capitalize on that. High-quality early childhood education directs children to play-based activities purposefully designed to build understanding of real math and science concepts.

Early math skills can predict later school success, even in reading. But if math problems persist at ages 6, 8, and 10, children are less likely to graduate from high school or attend college.

Proper brain development in young children also lays the groundwork for desirable workplace traits, including focus, perseverance, and teamwork.

Pennsylvania has a long tradition of investing in high-quality early childhood education, but it’s not enough. While Pennsylvania’s recently enacted state budget for 2016-17 will allow 6,200 additional children to enroll for a full year, about 70 percent of PA’s income-eligible three- and four-year olds do not have access because of inadequate funding. That’s 120,000 young children each year who might lack learning experiences in math and science fundamentals.

In order for our future workers to continue making significant achievements to our economic prosperity, we must invest in them as children by increasing access to quality early childhood education programs. It is my hope that, by next Labor Day, we will be celebrating a continued robust investment in these programs, pointing more children toward futures as participating citizens in the vitality of our local communities.

Read the full op-ed here.