“All young children have the intellectual capability to learn science. Even when they enter school, young children have rich knowledge of the natural world, demonstrate causal reasoning, and are able to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of knowledge. In other words, children come to school with the cognitive capacity to engage in serious ways with the enterprise of science.”
“Very little if anything is expected to be accomplished in science during the K-2 years in most U.S. elementary school classrooms, where the overwhelming focus is on developing early literacy and numeracy. Most science activities are short (one lesson long) rather than coherent units.”
Both quotations are from the landmark 2007 report by the National Research Council of The National Academies, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science Grades K – 8. (Free download here.)
It would seem from reading these two statements, that if we aren’t teaching very much science to young children in our schools, we are missing a hugely significant opportunity to build on their inherent interest in the world around them and the preliminary sense they’ve already made of it. After all, when the students are ready, isn’t the teacher supposed to appear? Cue the crickets.
Why is there such a profound disconnect in our schools between the reality of millions of science curious students who enter the school as budding little scientists and the actuality of nominal and often poor quality science instruction those children too often receive during those critical primary years? What does science look like at the beginning of schooling? What should it look like?
There’s a hint of an answer in the second quotation. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, U. S. schools have marginalized non-tested subjects, feeling the need to prove that their students are literate and numerate more than they feel the need to educate children in other subject areas children might find engaging and relevant to their lives, subjects like science, the arts, and social studies.
To begin to address these questions, I want to focus on what I saw in a kindergarten classroom I recently visited.
In Raquel Martinez’s Kindergarten classroom at Washington Elementary in Chicago, where students are learning about weather in a coherent ongoing unit, I see and hear children engaging in science and engineering practices.
Their teacher says to them, “You were good observers, good explorers yesterday.” She asks them, “Do you think the sun comes out everyday? Let’s take some time to think. (wait time) Now, turn to your partner. This is a tough question. You have to know why. ‘Does the sun come out everyday?’”
In many ways, it’s a subtle question Ms. Martinez poses to get her students thinking about what they have observed during their young lives. Ultimately, this lesson will lead children to an understanding of why the sun appears to come out each day — the result of the earth rotating on its axis as it revolves around the sun. But first she must tap their prior experience of the phenomenon.
I saw children keeping their observations in science notebooks.
I saw data gathered as part of the “Daily Weather Watch” and added to the weather observation chart, a bar graph, indicating whether the day is sunny, cloudy, or rainy.
Little Alana, “today’s weather watcher,” reports to her classmates after observing at the window, “It’s sunny.” By the next time I visit Washington, the “weather watcher” is being called “today’s meteorologist.”
Children color flash cards with the following words and images on them: Windy, Cloudy, Rainy, Stormy, Sunny, and Snowy. They cut them out with scissors, great for developing fine motor skills, and place them in a little pocket in their science notebooks. They have the words, “A scientists knows … in our world” before their eyes as they work.
There was more. But I hope this captures a sense of what should be happening at the very beginning of every child’s schooling to lay the foundation for all of the science learning that needs to take place over the course of the next twelve years and beyond. Above all, science should not be neglected. Very young children are ripe for learning science because they are inherently curious about their world and eager to understand how it works. And Raquel Martinez is there for them, expertly guiding their science experiences.
But let’s ask another expert.
Tonti Elementary 1st grade teacher and STEM Institute alum Stacy Gibson had this to say about why teaching science in the primary grades is so important:
“I love teaching science so much. First of all, it is so much fun for the kids. I feel a lot of people push science off because it isn’t tested in first grade. I feel that it teaches all the skills that are tested/important to be successful thinkers. In science, students are reading and comprehending what they are reading. We also include math (measurement, graphing, addition/subtraction, etc.) and most importantly working together and critical thinking. Science teaches kids ‘productive struggle.’ Students are working through challenging problems to come to a deeper understanding. It’s about trying things and learning from mistakes.
Planning science units is the hard part. It takes extra time and materials. At our school we don’t have a science curriculum, so we just have to find our own stuff. I spend a lot of time looking things up online and talking with other teachers. Science needs to be hands on, not just watching a video or reading a textbook everyday but instead having kids do the exploring. We used to use FOSS kits, and I loved that because we had all of the materials we needed in one place. After we got the new NGSS standards, our school stopped purchasing FOSS kits. We are still trying different lessons, and some work and some don’t. It is a work in process, and we are learning along with the students.
I do wish everyone saw the importance of science like see it. I wish materials were included when we are buying our math and reading materials every year. I have gotten a ton of great materials from different PDs and workshops, but I would love having ones that are focused on the first grade topics. ScienceAtoZ.com and Mystery Science have been helpful resources.
It is full time job planning and teaching science, and we have to do it along with all the other subjects. I am always re energized when I see the kids problem solving and working together and how excited they are, and I love working with other teachers who value science and the opportunities to explore teaching science with other adults.”
By the way, Stacy and her fellow first grade teachers have common planning time, and Stacy helps her colleagues by designing much of the science that she and her colleagues will teach. Both are excellent strategies for building an excellent science program, and Tonti has done a great job of that.
NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, a leading developer of the Next Generation Science Standards, updated its Position Statement on Early Childhood Science Education in light of the NGSS. It’s well worth reading, if you are looking for support for doing more science in your classroom, an understanding of what that science should look like, and a guide to the kind of professional development that would best foster your own growth as a classroom teacher responsible for developing science understandings in young children. (By the way, STEM Institute meets all of the criteria.)
But to give you a sense of the critical elements NSTA recommends, here is an excerpt:
NSTA recommends that teachers and other education providers who support children’s learning in any early childhood setting should
• recognize the value and importance of nurturing young children’s curiosity and provide experiences in the early years that focus on the content and practices of science with an understanding of how these experiences connect to the science content defined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States 2013);
• understand that science experiences are already a part of what young children encounter every day through play and interactions with others, but that teachers and other education providers need to provide a learning environment that encourages children to ask questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings;
• tap into, guide, and focus children’s natural interests and abilities through carefully planned open-ended, inquiry-based explorations;
• provide numerous opportunities every day for young children to engage in science inquiry and learning by intentionally designing a rich, positive, and safe environment for exploration and discovery;
• emphasize the learning of science and engineering practices, including asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations and designing solutions; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NRC 2012, NGSS Lead States 2013);
• recognize that science provides a purposeful context for developing literacy skills and concepts, including speaking, listening, vocabulary development, and many others; and
recognize that science provides a purposeful context for use of math skills and concepts.
Some good guidance there, as you plan your own science units. You can read the entire position statement here.
You can learn more about STEM Institute here. We are currently recruiting Chicago area schools to join our 2017 cohort. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or call 312-477-7522. Looking forward!