PEER uses a variety of approaches to conduct rigorous, collaborative, actionable research that addresses the priority research areas identified through a collaborative research agenda-setting process in 2015. PEER’s current projects examine early education at the state, regional, and local levels. One of PEER’s local projects is an evaluation of the early science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education model implemented at Maritime Odyssey Preschool in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Maritime Odyssey Preschool was founded in 2016 when Odyssey Learning, Inc. and The Maritime Aquarium joined forces to create a STEM-focused early childhood education program. Maritime Odyssey Preschool now serves over 200 children and receives funding through Connecticut’s School Readiness and Child Day Care grant programs. In 2017, Odyssey Learning and The Maritime Aquarium asked PEER to serve as an evaluation partner who could help them to use data to guide their decision-making, understand the program’s effectiveness, and identify areas for growth.
In the first phase of this project, PEER worked with leaders from Odyssey Learning and The Maritime Aquarium to develop a logic model for their early STEM education approach. The goal of this phase was to identify the key elements of the approach, how these elements would effect change for students, and what outcomes would indicate that change is occurring. Developing a logic model has helped the organizations think deeply about how they expect the program to serve students. For example, preschool students visit the on-site STEM lab weekly, where children learn about marine science, science tools, and scientific thinking through hands-on activities led by Aquarium educators. These activities are designed to promote children’s interest in STEM and build their science knowledge.
The next phase of this project was to design a preliminary evaluation. The partners worked together to identify what data was available or could be collected about program implementation and about child, family, and teacher outcomes. For example, the partners expected that the early STEM education model would be associated with a range of positive child outcomes, including stronger early math and literacy skills, as well as increased interest and knowledge in science. The partners also expected that these outcomes would be associated with teachers' use of effective STEM learning activities in classrooms and in the STEM lab. As a result, the group explored ways to measure teacher confidence and attitudes about STEM, in addition to exploring ways to assess children’s STEM skills.
As the group designed the preliminary evaluation, partners considered possible evaluation designs and potential measures, including the benefits and limitations of each and the resources that would be required. The preliminary evaluation will include existing data from children’s enrollment records and an assessment of early literacy skills (administered three times per year), as well as new data collected through teacher surveys (conducted twice per year). The group has also been exploring measures of classroom practices related to STEM and measures of children’s early math and science skills. Because it hasn’t been possible to identify a comparison group to participate in the evaluation, the preliminary evaluation will focus on trends over time for teachers and children at Maritime Odyssey Preschool.
Thus far, PEER’s work with Odyssey Learning and The Maritime Aquarium has led to many productive conversations about their shared work. Results from the 2018-2019 administrations of the early STEM teacher survey provided insight into areas within math and science in which teachers might benefit from additional support. Through the ongoing process of developing a logic model and examining survey data, the partners shifted their thinking about the mechanism for change. Specifically, Odyssey Learning and The Maritime Aquarium decided to focus more attention on supporting preschool teachers in leading STEM learning, rather than relying largely on Aquarium educators to lead science learning. As a result, the partners provided more STEM-related professional development for their preschool teachers and created more opportunities for preschool teachers to learn from Aquarium educators through coaching and co-teaching. PEER looks forward to seeing what the group will learn as the evaluation continues!