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Little Scientists Early STEM Education Awards 2024

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PROJECT GUIDANCE

To nominate for the Excellence in Early STEM Education Award, early learning services and classrooms must develop and document an inquiry-based STEM project with your children. A project provides an opportunity to showcase how your service or classroom embeds inquiry-based STEM learning into your teaching practices and highlights the expertise of your educators and teachers in this area. This page will provide you with the guidance to plan and run a high-quality project.

Before you start your inquiry-based project:

Step 1. Read the guide on this page before you start your project.
Step 2. Read through the nomination questions in this view-only and printable form.

Checklist to help you prepare:

✅ Select educators to facilitate the project.
✅ Discuss the project marking criteria together.
✅ Discuss the inquiry-cycle that your project must follow.
✅ Read through the project nomination questions.
✅ Discuss your thoughts and ideas about applying a gender lens to your project.
✅ Plan an approximate project start date (a project requires a few weeks minimum).

Google (Noto Color Emoji - Unicode 15.1)Submission tip

Develop your nomination responses in a separate document PRIOR to filling out the nominee submission form. You can view the questions here. Once you’ve finalised your writing and documentation, you can then copy and paste your responses into the official form when it opens.

Key dates

Project-based STEM PD:

💭 Join our online STEM Hour on 14 March to learn from past winners about their inquiry-based STEM projects. 

💭 If you’re in Sydney, book into our Optics & Inquiry Projects Workshop on 4 March.

💭 Learn about gender bias in early STEM on 2 May from Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador.

For any questions or to request a call, please email: awards@littlescientists.org.au

Check out previous winning projects:

The Point Preschool discovered a coral skeleton from the Great Barrier Reef in their very own sand pit!
Professor Lynn Corcoran ELC explored the big question: “What is time?” using sundials and links to First Nations Dreamtime stories.
Hensman Street Elementary investigated ramps, speed, and pathways after a visit to the zoo!

How will your STEM project be assessed?

Projects submitted for consideration in the Little Scientists Early STEM Education Award will be assessed against the following marking criteria:

Criteria 1. Is it original?

The most original projects lean into the creativity and imagination of children by exploring exciting questions and ideas that they bring to the table. For example, at Makybe Rise Primary School in WA, a child brought in an empty nest they had found. This inspired an in-depth STEM project to discover what kind of bird had made it. The children analysed the size of the nest, researched local birds, constructed model nests out of various materials, and tested the size of eggs they found in the local supermarket. What an exciting and original project idea!

Criteria 2. Is STEM central?

Is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) content a central part of your project work and documentation? How well has your project developed children’s critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, communication, independent thinking, and initiative?

Criteria 3. Is it a project?

A project is always designed with a specific objective of finding something out, e.g. “Can wattle seeds grow in space?” as opposed to an open-ended activity like "Exploring native flowers". All projects need to have a clear goal and a plan, involve multiple steps or stages, take place over an extended period of time, and explore the topic from multiple perspectives. Great projects will set out to discover something ambitious or exciting!

Criteria 4. Is it child-led?

The idea for your project should be sparked from the questions and interests of your children. From the beginning, it’s important that the children feel a strong sense of agency throughout the project and that they are at the heart of planning and implementing the project and its documentation. On the other hand, educators are there to support, coach, and co-construct learning with children.

Criteria 5. Is it inquiry-based?

A project with an inquiry-based focus will be motivated and led by the children, emphasise process and learning (rather than quickly finding out the answer), and build on the prior knowledge of the children. To ensure your project is inquiry-based, make sure you follow the inquiry cycle (see image in "Inquiry-based STEM projects").

Criteria 6. Does it apply a gender lens?

Identifying and overcoming gender stereotypes and implicit gender biases is never-ending work. If you feel you have a lot to learn, you have the right attitude! The most successful STEM project isn’t necessarily free from challenges. In your submission, it's more important to show evidence that you can critically reflect on your practice, adapt and make changes, and articulate what you've learnt along the way to make STEM learning more inclusive and empowering for all genders.

What makes an inquiry-based STEM project?

What is an inquiry-based project?

An inquiry-based project follows the Inquiry Cycle. This means it is designed with a specific objective of finding something out — e.g. “Can wattle seeds grow in space?” — as opposed to an open-ended activity, e.g. “Exploring gravity.” The emphasis of an inquiry-based project is on process and learning (rather than quickly finding out the answer) and engages with a topic over an extended period of time, i.e. at least several weeks or months. This provides the time for children’s hypotheses, questions, and concepts to be explored via exploration, discovery, and reflection.

Inquiry-based STEM projects build upon the interests of children, which means they could stem from a question they ask, an observation they make, or be inspired by one of their specific interests. It’s critical for the children to experience a strong sense of agency throughout the project and to be at the heart of developing questions to explore, plan, implement, and document the project. In contrast, educators are there to support, facilitate, and witness.

Your inquiry-based project should follow this structure: (A detailed Inquiry Cycle an be found on the next tab.)

Step 1. Select a question sparked from the children for your project to explore.

Step 2. Explore children’s prior knowledge and their ideas and hypotheses related to the topic.

Step 3. Children conduct research and experiments.

Step 4. Children observe what is happening and are encouraged to describe what they are learning.

*During the course of your project, you will likely return to Step 2, 3, and 4 multiple times as the children learn new information and form new ideas and hypotheses to explore.  

Step 5. Children are supported to document their observations and results.

Step 6. Discuss the results and findings of the project.

Google (Noto Color Emoji - Unicode 15.1) The award-winning project “Can we save Humpty Dumpty?” by Glass House Early Education Centre (QLD) provides an excellent example of following the Inquiry Cycle.

Your project should follow the Inquiry Cycle, as outlined in the two images below. Click on the images to enlarge or download.

Little Scientists House Project Support

Benefits for children:

The value of undertaking an inquiry-based STEM project is so much more than a box-ticking exercise. In fact, we hope the experience will prompt educators and services to run inquiry-based STEM projects with children throughout each year.

That’s because inquiry-based STEM projects build upon the interests of children and develop their critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and independent thinking. 

They empower children and can also provide meaningful opportunities to involve parents and the broader community. But most of all, they spark joy!

Little Scientists House Project Support

Benefits for educators:

Running an inquiry-based STEM project provides an opportunity to embed inquiry-based STEM into the everyday teaching practices of your service or classroom. With practice, the aim is that inquiry-based STEM will be embedded throughout the curriculum service-wide.

For educators, the experience of supporting and facilitating a child-led STEM project is an invaluable professional development experience that builds STEM skills and confidence. The educators involved in the project can then share their learnings and reflections with the rest of the educator team who can then run their own inquiry-based STEM projects.

Read more: Gender bias in early STEM

Shining a spotlight on STEM gender bias

A child’s first experience of STEM education will likely be in an early learning setting. Outside of parents and carers, an early childhood educator or teacher will be a child’s first and most influential STEM teacher.

Children’s first STEM learning experiences are critical in the development of positive dispositions towards STEM and their enthusiasm for engaging in STEM learning into the future. Studies show that children who engage in rich STEM learning experiences from infancy develop stronger STEM identities and foundational STEM skills — like critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity — as well as resilient thinking dispositions that improve their education outcomes generally, as well as in STEM specifically.

Unfortunately, though, children’s experience of early STEM education is not all equal. For young girls, gender stereotypes and implicit gender biases significantly impact their inclusion in early STEM education. By the age of six, young girls’ participation in STEM education is already negatively impacted and, in many cases, they have de-identified with STEM completely. This lack of STEM inclusion in early childhood has life-long consequences, with women currently making up only 15% of the STEM workforce in Australia.

Early childhood is the critical window to intervene if Australia is to increase girls’ engagement and inclusion in STEM education. This makes early childhood educators and early primary teachers the heroes in the fight to overcome the gender stereotypes and implicit gender biases that are holding girls back when it comes to developing their STEM identities. The 2024 Awards are an opportunity for educators and teachers to be recognised for their work creating inclusive STEM education through intentional, informed and inspirational early STEM teaching practices.

What does gender bias look like in early STEM education?

It’s important to recognise that we all hold implicit gender biases, which are biases we have internalised without even realising it. This means that, unless we proactively work to uncover and overcome our implicit gender biases, we risk perpetuating gender stereotypes that continue to hold girls back in areas like STEM. Gender stereotypes and implicit gender bias are wide-ranging, for example:

💥 Educators perceive boys as more confident than girls in all STEM subjects, according to the STEM Equity Monitor (Commonwealth Department of Industry, Science and Resources).

💥 The use of gendered images when describing STEM, e.g. showing images of mostly boys and men partaking in STEM activities and professions.

💥 The use of gendered language when describing STEM, e.g. by defaulting to “he/him” pronouns when referring to astronauts, doctors, or engineers.

💥 Educators and teachers may be prone to noticing (and praising) STEM learning opportunities in popular boy play, like construction, compared to in popular girl activities, like home play.

💥 Educators and teachers may have a tendency to set up STEM learning experiences with materials or in spaces often dominated by boys, for example the block area.

💥 Parents are far more likely to engage in informal science and maths activities at home, like counting, with boys compared to girls.

 

 Read more about gender bias in STEM 

Below are a few articles and resources to help you further explore the implications of gender in early STEM education. In each, we’ve suggested the most relevant sections to read if you’re short on time. If you know of a great resource or reading that should be added to the list, let us know at awards@littlescientists.org.au

Click here to access. 

Published by: Australian Government Department of Industry, Science and Resources
If tight on time, read these sections: 

Click here to access. 

Author: Professor Marilyn Fleer 

If tight on time, read these sections: 

  • Introduction  
  • Understanding the problem 

 Click here to access.

Author: Petra Stock, Cosmos Magazine 

It’s short, read it all! 

Click here to access.  

Authors: Therese Keane, Tanya Linden and Suzanne Snead from Swinburne University of Technology 

If tight on time, read these sections: 

  • Direct best practice in and out of the classroom pg 19 
  • Best practice support pg 22 

How should I get started?

We are here to help! Email awards@littlescientists.org.au for any questions or to request a call — we’d love to support you on your journey!

If you’re nominating as a
service or classroom:

 STEP 1. Read the project guidance here before starting your STEM project.

STEP 2. Read through the nominee questions on this view-only and printable version.

STRONGLY RECOMMENDED:

 🔔 Join our online STEM Hour on 14 March to learn from past winners about their inquiry-based STEM projects.

🔔 If you’re in Sydney, book into our Optics & Inquiry Projects Workshop on 4 March.

🔔 Learn about gender bias in early STEM on 2 May from Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador

If you’re nominating as an
educator or teacher:

STEP 1. Read about our theme about gender bias on the Awards Project Support page.

STEP 2. Read through the nominee questions in full on this view-only and printable form. 

 

STRONGLY RECOMMENDED:

 🔔 Book into an in-person STEM workshop or online STEM workshop to boost your STEM skills and knowledge.

🔔 Learn about gender bias in early STEM on 2 May from Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador

If you’re nominating as a
service or classroom:

STEP 1. Read the project guidance here before starting your STEM project. STEP 2. Read through the nominee submission questions on this view-only and printable version.

If you’re nominating as an
educator or teacher:

STEP 1. Read about our theme “Overcoming gender bias in early STEM education” above.

STEP 2. Read through the nominee submission form in full. Click here for a view-only and printable form.

Thank you to our major prize sponsors!

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