I recently listened to a KPCC story about a new kind of preschool. I didn’t know it at the time, but my daughter was listening to the story with me and, as it turns out, was as bothered by it as I was, not because the toddlers in the story were learning about engineering, but because their preschool experience was only about it.
The early years are all about children learning about the world around them and being exposed to as many of its wonders as we can possibly show them. Narrowing a child’s experience to one thing or one set of things is a terrible idea. Arbitrarily assuming that a child will even choose, later on, to become an engineer, out of some need to diversify the pool from which engineers come from is ridiculous.
As the story unfolded, the listener was given a sample of what a typical day consists of at The Children’s Center at Caltech. Even the nursery rhyme was about engineering. The curriculum, while based on good research on what the brain is capable of absorbing, is hyperfocused on the one topic and, it seems, completely ignores what we already know about exposure to as much culture as possible. Adding engineering to a rich cultural palette in early childhood education seems like a great idea. Specializing preschool, on the other hand, is not.
I understand the drive to attract as many females and minorities as possible to STEM. I don’t think this is the appropriate way to do it. Furthermore, specialized preschools are usually not accessible to the minorities this program purports to serve. Any private preschools that adopt it, once it is no longer a pilot program, would still cater to populations that are not the target of this effort.
Again, there is nothing wrong with teaching toddlers concepts that will prepare them to be numerate or stimulate the kinds of skills required to visualize and solve problems when building things. Those are great skills to promote early and, I agree, earlier is better. But not like this! To have absolutely everything centered around one topic, right down to the nursery rhyme, is ridiculous. We are raising and educating human children. We should not be breeding engineers or any other occupation.
Pockets of politically-correct teaching will not change the rest of society. Educating new parents and demanding from all of the industries that cater to children to stop perpetuating certain stereotypes will go a long way toward making the kinds of changes that are needed. Making smarter toys accessible to more children is key. Asking manufacturers to begin making their toys available in non-gender specific color schemes and designs will go a long way too.
The best way to bring about diversity in any given field, technical or not, is to ensure that all children are given access to an education that is truly egalitarian and rich with content that encompasses language, the humanities and, yes, numeracy and engineering. The best way to do away with outdated notions about what a girl can or cannot do is to ensure that sexism and sexist attitudes are removed from education as a whole, and the rest of society.