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STEMIEFest sees strong turnout, fosters STEM for all young children

STEMIE logo card; STEMIE innovation for inclusion in early education

STEMIEFest sees strong turnout, fosters STEM for all young children

February 1, 2023

More than 350 early childhood professionals and parents gathered online on December 8, 2022 for STEMIEFest, a conference designed to support practitioners in fostering STEM and computational thinking for all young children, including those with disabilities. The event was organized by Chih-Ing Lim, PhD, co-director of the STEM Innovation for Inclusion in Early Education (STEMIE) Center, and Megan Vinh, PhD, principal investigator at STEMIE. STEMIE is a center at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.
The half-day conference was bookended by the opening keynote from NASA Quality Engineer K. Renee Horton, PhD, and closing keynote from children’s author and publisher Carmen Bogan. Horton, who walked a nontraditional career path, shared her lived experience as a Black woman with a disability who pursued a career in STEM. “Dr. Horton presented a powerful message on systemic racism and ableism and how these have marginalized and minoritized Black and Brown children and families,” reflected Lim. “But she also provided stories of hope, of advocacy, of how we can support children to dream big and break down those barriers. She also challenged those of us who are fortunate to be in positions of power and privilege to bring someone else to the table or to even build our own tables to ensure Black and Brown children, and children with disabilities can fly and make their dreams a reality.”
Bogan, who believes that all children deserve to see diverse literary characters and have opportunities to experience nature and the great outdoors, introduced the audience to her book, Where’s Rodney. Where’s Rodney is the first children’s book that includes a Black protagonist in nature that was written by a Black author and illustrated by a Black illustrator. “Carmen Bogan is a trailblazer,” shared Vinh. “While there are many books that include white protagonists telling stories of wildlife and nature, there are few books that portray Black children in this setting.”

“Nature and outdoor play are a huge part of STEM exploration as they provide a natural canvas for questions, engagement with the world around us, and provide meaningful opportunities for adults to intentionally capitalize on children’s interest,” continued Vinh. “Yet, again, there is inequity in who feels safety and belonging in nature. Historically, nature and outdoor play have not been welcoming or safe places for Black people, nor have they been welcoming for children with disabilities. Therefore the work of Carmen is so critical in affirming that Black children and other minoritized children belong in nature.”
The afternoon’s concurrent sessions featured a range of sessions, each aimed at a specific audience: “Environments and Opportunities for Baby STEM” for center-based infant and toddler practitioners;  “What’s STEM Got to Do With It: Effective STEM Pedagogy in Inclusive Preschool Settings” for center-based preschool practitioners; “Intentional from the Start: Making STEM Accessible for All” for informal STEM learning professionals who work at sites such as museums or libraries; “Making the Case for Early Intervention and STEM” for early intervention practitioners; “STEMify-ing Your Daily Activities” for families; and “Embedding STEM in Higher Education Course and Professional Development Opportunities” for faculty and professional development providers.
These interactive sessions enabled participants to dig deeper into practices to support their work in empowering all young children with STEM activities. Conference organizers plan to offer professional development opportunities throughout the year, with targeted focus sessions, each aimed at a specific audience, allowing deeper study.
Attendee feedback was uniformly positive, with comments including, “(I appreciate the) accessibility to learning to engender interest from family to PhD professionals and all points in between. There is something for everyone” and “As an early intervention provider, I received a great understanding about how STEM is involved in every aspect of infants’ and toddlers’ lives and overall development.”
This conference was the last of this iteration of STEMIEFest although Lim and Vinh hope that it is not the last year of STEMIEFest. They are gratified by what they have achieved with their work, noting the momentum in the field for inclusive and equitable STEM and increased efforts to ensure that everyone sees themselves belonging in the field.
The organizers are proud to have created an accessible online event that enabled attendance from around the world, and included Spanish language translators and ASL interpreters. Vinh says that the event has helped attendees understand that STEM starts at birth. “This type of learning doesn't just start when a child hits kindergarten,” she says. “We need to think about equity in terms of intersectional identities as well. One of the ideas that STEMIEFest puts forward is that STEM learning needs to start early and should be inclusive of children with disabilities.”
“We brought the voices of those with lived experiences with disabilities to the forefront while also providing a practice focus so attendees learned new ways of working with children that they could try out as soon as the conference was over,” says Lim. “We offered information that helps whether an attendee is a parent or a home service provider or works in a center or in the community. We cover the spectrum of settings because inclusion is not just a placement.”