DURING early childhood, infants and toddlers develop 700 neural connections every second. This period has long been accepted as the most critical point in neurological or brain development.
Experts say this sensitive period of development must be utilised to start children on the right path to be successful in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and other content areas. Once these neurological pathways are developed, they go through a pruning process, in which synapses that are not used are eliminated.
Based on this, the Faculty of Psychology and Education at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS)
has taken on an initiative to focus on creating STEM activities, particularly in the area of Mathematics, for preschool level (nursery and kindergarten) children under the STEM Mentor-Mentee Programme driven by the National STEM Movement.
“The Faculty of Psychology and Education produces graduates who are recognised in the field of Psychology and Education.
“We have five programmes: Science and Mathematics with Education, Social Science with Education, Economic with Education, Education with Teaching English as a Second Language and Early Childhood Education.
“The programmes train teachers for the said particular areas. Thus, we have strong connections with schools as we are producing future teachers,” said senior lecturer Dr Christina Andin.
Christina said research confirmed that the brain was particularly receptive to learning mathematics and logic between the ages of 1 and 4, and that early mathematics skills were the most powerful predictors of later learning.
“Early math skills are a better predictor of later academic success than early reading. Basically, we hold this findings as justification in the paperwork for this STEM project.”
For the STEM Mentor-Mentee Programme, Christina collaborated with fellow lecturer Dr Connie Shin.
“She is from the Early Childhood Education programme and I am from the Economic with Education programme.
“Our study is about the learning of numbers among preschoolers. We used money as a medium to learn mathematics because it provides a perfect, authentic opportunity to explore mathematics.
“Each coin and paper money has an assigned value. These can be used to engage kids in techniques of sorting, counting, comparing, measuring, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and, eventually, using fractions, decimals, percentages and more,” Christina said.
“Accountant Juniors”, the name of the project, illustrated the ambitious mind to be“like a professional”.
“As we know, an accountant is a professional who performs accounting functions, such as audits or financial statement analyses,” said Christina.
Accountant Junior also has some integrated learning objectives, such as introducing and familiarising children with money, value and the concept of trading, developing social skills, and practising negotiation skills, turn taking and sharing.
The activities provide opportunities for working out problems and experimenting with solutions.
“The development of the modules involved several stages,” said Christina.
“The first was to determine the content to be taught, where we referred to the latest syllabus of Early Mathematics by the Education Ministry. Then, the writing of the lesson plan, which provides important guides for teachers on how to implement the teaching and learning activities. Following that was the creation of the teaching aid as a tool for teaching and learning activities.”
As the concept is based on games, there are five games within the modules that range from simple money-counting activities to more complex money calculations.
The games include an activity called “Know Your Money”, where preschoolers get familiar with coins and paper money. This activity is divided into three sub-activities, namely “Pancing Wang”, “Many or Little” and “Pay by Price”.
Activity 2, “Wheels of Dreams (Needs and Wants)”, is based on the theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow. Through this game, children will learn about the concepts of cheap and expensive through identifying of price tags.
Activity 3, “ATM Machine (Addition and Subtraction)”, relates to the introduction of value in money to children. Children will be exposed to activities that involve addition and subtraction.
Activity 4, “Monopoly (Plan Your Money)”, is a board game where players are involved in making purchses and saving money. This game applies the concepts of addition and subtraction, as well as enhances cognitive, affective and psychomotor aspects. Kids will distinguish between earning, spending, saving and sharing money. The money used per player is below RM10.
Lastly, Activity 5, “Spend and Save”, introduces to children as early as 4 to the usage of 10 sen up to RM10.
“We implemented Accountant Junior in real classroom settings. This involved the pre-test and post-test. The pilot programme was held in Ranau, Kota Belud, Labuan, Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Penyu in Sabah, involving 15 kindergartens, with the presence of 375 preschoolers,” said Christina.
To fulfil the basic concept of the mentor-mentee programme, the kindergarten and nursery teachers took on the role as mentees and university students as mentors.The students are from UMS’s Early Childhood Education programme.
“They are the future kindergarten teachers. Therefore, engaging them in this activity will indirectly expose them to the real world of teaching and learning in the kindergarten context. This is important in producing teachers who have the passion for STEM education,” said Christina.
UMS second-year Early Childhood Education student Phreoza Dayzency Missie said: “The programme is all about exploring early mathematics and exposing preschoolers to financial literacy and money skills. We observed that lower primary schoolchildren often have problems dealing with transactions at their school canteen and thought of teaching them to count by using games and activities.
“The 12 of us mentors, students of the Early Childhood Education Programme, have worked with 33 mentees — kindergarten teachers. We’ve been thinking of turning the games into software applications, so that we can run the programme in Sarawak and the rest of Malaysia too.
“The age of 4 to 6 is very critical to instill understanding of numbers and relate it to problem solving.”
And has the Accountant Junior mentor-mentee programme been successful?
“This is only the starting point for the STEM Mentor-Mentee Programme at UMS. A lot of things need to be done, especially in involving the rest of the three components of STEM, Science, Technology and Engineering,” said Christina.
“We are also in the process of developing the module for ‘Natural Lab’, where we use the eco-campus environment as a medium of learning science concepts among pre-schoolers.
“The Natural lab is based on outdoor nature science activities that are practical and fun. Exploring, playing, examining, observing and learning are key components of bringing science outdoors. From the grass under our feet to the clouds in the sky, science is all around.
“What is really needed is a touch of curiosity, excitement and love of the outdoors to spark
love of science among our children,” she