Equity in Science Education Begins in Prek

Welcome to my colleague Lauren Allen who co-authored this blog post. 

Lauren Allen is currently an administrator focused on STEM Integration in the District of Columbia. While originally from South Carolina, she earned a BS in Biology with an emphasis in Molecular Biology from Hampton University and a MS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Georgetown University.  Lauren serves on the leadership team for DC STEM Network and a group leader the 100Kin10 Fellowship Program, focused on supporting active STEM learning in grades P-3. She taught middle school science for six years and has worked in variety of science administration and educational positions.


Child scoops up blue water.All young children are “science” kids. In addition to the traits children are born with, their experiences shape their development (NAS). With many opportunities to engage in science explorations and investigations, their understanding grows and they develop  critical thinking skills. Being immersed in an exploration is the best way for young children to learn about the world. Science investigations are powerful experiences in which children use and build their literacy and math skills alongside the practices of science. How can we can make sure that all children get involved in those immersive science experiences where they use their skills to pursue a question that interests them?

At the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC) national conference, many early childhood educators from varied programs were eager to learn best practices in science education. We discussed the National Science Teachers Association’s position statement on science in early childhood that states, “At an early age, all children have the capacity and propensity to observe, explore, and discover the world around them.” This NSTA position statement was endorsed by the NAEYC.

Teachers in a professional development session.

Teachers work together observing beetle larvae.

 

 

 

 

 

The NAEYC’s position statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (2009) provides a framework for best practice to promote excellence in early childhood education. It is also grounded in research. The statement highlights three challenges in early childhood education: “reducing learning gaps and increasing the achievement of all children; creating improved, better connected education for preschool and elementary children; and recognizing teacher knowledge and decision making as vital to educational effectiveness” (NAEYC Pg 2).

Teacher discusses a tally chart of smells with child.Solutions for these challenges all involve access to professional development, support, and growth for educators. Panel discussions at the May 2016 event “Fostering STEM Trajectories,” produced by New America’s Education Policy Program and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, highlighted that the well-being and preparation of early education teachers play a major role in student outcomes. Training, staffing structure, and resources all impact the teacher’s ability to incorporate science, technology, engineering and math in the classroom. Teachers of children 0-8 years old need better preparation to understand and meet the needs of all young children and their families and improved support to ensure the continuity of developmentally appropriate expectations for young children’s learning and behavior. Support for early childhood educators in the form of increased wages could reduce turnover, and promote additional education in child development (Shulte and Durana 2016). Additional education can happen within existing settings if funding is provided for additional hours for professional development (including hiring substitutes). Professional development and personal reflection focused on differentiation, assuring that all children can participate, and behavior management, to prevent expulsion of preschoolers (Gilliam), will build our nation’s next generation workforce’s capacity and propensity to observe, explore, and discover the world (Zero to Three). 

Teacher & child observe beetle larva.Early childhood educators in all areas and settings in the profession can help our nation lift up tomorrow’s leaders when given the tools and resources needed to successfully differentiate and actively engage early learners in science, technology, engineering and math practices. Teachers must be sensitive to children’s cultural and other differences, and be willing and have the skill to adjust instruction to meet children’s needs (NRC). Removing barriers to make learning personalized and relevant help close learning gaps by providing access to deeper learning in these content areas. According to Deborah Phillips, editor of “Neurons to Neighborhoods”, studies have shown that disparities in math and science develop early and can impact high school progress and student achievement in these subject areas.

If we truly want to improve the educational experiences of young learners, we must stop limiting them. We must support teachers in science teaching and let go of limited mindsets and assumptions regarding young learners and their abilities to “do science”. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson when asked for advice on how to get kids interested in science commented, “We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down…Get out of their way. Put things in their midst that help them explore” (Big Think). We must prepare the learning environments that allow children the time, space, and class structures to explore, play, argue, and experiment. Early learners need to be engaged in active learning using the world around them and have engaged adults at their sides to help them reflect on their experiences. We must empower early educators in building a foundation in science for our next generation.

References

Big Think. May 13, 2013. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Want Scientifically Literate Children? Get Out of Their Way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIEJjpVlZu0

Gilliam, Walter S., Angela N. Maupin, Chin R. Reyes, Maria Accavitti, Frederick Shic. 2016. Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? New Haven, CT: Yale University Child Study Center.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS). 2000. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/9824/from-neurons-to-neighborhoods-the-science-of-early-childhood-development

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (NAEYC). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 Adopted 2009. https://www.naeyc.org/positionstatements/dap

National Research Council (NRC). 2007. Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K–8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Science Teachers Association. 2014. Position Statement: Early Childhood Science Educationhttp://www.nsta.org/about/positions/earlychildhood.aspx

Schulte, Brigid and Alieza Durana. September 28, 2016. The New America Care Reporthttps://www.newamerica.org/better-life-lab/policy-papers/new-america-care-report/

The ZERO TO THREE Policy Center. https://www.zerotothree.org/

Resource

Fostering STEM Trajectories: Bridging ECE Research, Practice, & Policy. 2016. http://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/events/fostering-stem-trajectories/

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2 Comments

  1. Rustina DT Sharpe
    Posted November 13, 2016 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    It is not only about providing the materials to explore and experiment with in prekindergarten, but also giving them the skills and vocabulary to communicate their discoveries. I use science journals in my class, where the children can draw pictures of what they did or saw. Those who are able, we encourage inventive spelling in writing about their pictures, and for others, we write what they dictate to us. We ask questions that may prompt curiosity, exploration, and discovery by saying “I wonder what will happen” or “I wonder why…,” and ask children to predict outcomes “will it sink or float?” Not only on paper, but in movement, I encourage children to recreate what they observe, “did the leaf fall like this or this…can you move like a leaf on a breeze…” Materials in the discovery center are allowed to “wander” the classroom; binoculars show up in blocks, magnifying glasses in dramatic play, collections are buried in the sand…exploration happens throughout the room. When I find that something peaks my students interest, I do my best to find materials and books to create a study (a new concept for me this year) and create lists of questions, observations, as well as falling back onto the old reliable KWL (know, want to know and learned) charts. We use graphs every chance we can, and tally marks too. All in all, my classroom isn’t just for prekindergarten students, but for mini-scientists and explorers!

  2. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted November 14, 2016 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I know I would enjoy being a student in your science-rich prekindergarten, Rustina, where children are developing skills to observe, communicate and collect data. Thank you for sharing the ways you embed exploration throughout the room and curriculum.

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