Theme of the month

Theme of the Month

Join us each month as we focus on a topic of interest to STEM Teacher Leaders with a webinar panel, open discussion, resources and blog post. 

Uncovering the Brilliance of Children: Science in Elementary

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Every child deserves to experience the wonder of science and the satisfaction of engineering.

Young children are naturally curious about the world around them. They enjoy exploring science concepts and engaging in engineering. At an early age, all children have the capacity and propensity to observe, explore, and discover the world around them (NASEM, 2012). Leveraging the wonder and joy students experience as they ask questions, investigating real-world phenomena, and designing solutions to problems that matter to them can help lay a foundation that will support students in future learning and opportunities. Moreover, providing children with the opportunity to engage in meaningful science learning experiences early can position them to identify themselves as thinkers and doers of science today and give them the tools they need to be informed decision makers in the future. Unfortunately, science learning in early childhood and the elementary grades is under-resourced and often not attended to in robust or comprehensive ways. These challenges often disproportionately impact students who have been historically marginalized.

How can preschool and elementary educators face these challenges and improve outcomes for students? A new consensus report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators explores policies and practices that constrain or facilitate efforts to enhance science and engineering in preK-5 and identifies gaps in the current research base and the key directions for future research. It also examines the challenges preschool and elementary teachers face as they teach science and provides guidance on effective approaches to science and engineering instruction in early childhood and elementary that supports the success of all students.

Preschool and elementary teachers typically teach more than one subject. While the teachers often have limited preparation in science and engineering, they bring many assets and expertise to the classroom including the capacity in building relationships with children and families, creating engaging and safe classroom environments, and having an expertise across language domains of speaking, listening, writing, and reading. Preschool and elementary teachers often have deep knowledge of child development and are inquisitive about the world themselves. To build on these strengths and improve outcomes for students, teachers need a constellation of support across their preservice and professional careers. These supports include professional learning experiences, supportive leadership, access to high-quality curriculum materials, and physical and digital resources.

Across the many contexts in which children engage in science and engineering activities both in and out of school, their development of ideas and practices is supported by their intuitive and imaginative ways of investigating and designing. There are several high-leverage strategies teachers can employ to recognize the strength of children and make science and engineering learning experiences more meaningful. The report recommends some promising practices teachers can use to enhance children's opportunities to learn science and engineering and build on what children can do.:

  1. Arrange instruction around interesting and relevant phenomena and design problems that leverage children’s natural curiosity and give children opportunities for decision-making, sensemaking, and problem-solving.
  2. Establish norms for a caring, collective culture.
  3. Position children as active thinkers and doers while also providing opportunities to support collaboration and collective thinking.
  4. Employ formative assessment processes that gather multiple forms of evidence at multiple time points, with the goal of informing instruction.
  5. Seek out opportunities to continue to build expertise in working toward equity and justice in science and engineering teaching.
  6. Engage and collaborate with families and local community partners to support children’s opportunities for engaging in science and engineering.

On average, students receive only about 20 minutes of science instruction a day and for only a few days a week. Besides allocating time, money, resources, and support for preschool and elementary science instruction, content integration has the potential to enhance connections between subjects and effectively increase the amount of instructional time for science learning. Content integration can be especially powerful if it respects unique content and disciplinary practices of all domains, leverages meaningful and mutually supportive connections among subject areas, and is developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate. The chart, Justification for Integration (NASEM 2021), provides evidence for productive connections between science and engineering and other domains.

Justification for Integration

English Language Arts

  • Language and literacy help children develop tools and practices for making sense of and communicating about the world.
  • Children can use reading, writing, drawing, and speaking to acquire ideas and communicate their thinking about science and engineering.

Mathematics

  • In PreK–5, mathematics is one main tool for modeling in science and engineering.
  • Science practices involve counting, measuring, spatial thinking, working with data, multiplicative thinking and scaling, identifying patterns, and mathematical and logical reasoning.

Social Studies

  • Potential connections to social issues as well as disciplinary practices in history.                            

Computational Thinking

  • Computational thinking (CT) can support learning across domains and disciplinary learning provides a meaningful context for engaging in CT.

Social-Emotional Learning

  • Effective approaches to learning are positively associated with improvements in science.

Leaders and administrators, like teachers, also need professional learning opportunities to enhance their capacity for providing instructional leadership and support for science and engineering instruction.  There should be a focus on the science and engineering practices and the professional learning should support leaders in seeing multiple ways science/engineering are valuable for children.

In our webinar, we will dive a little deeper into the report and then share practical ways we use promising practices, integration, and provide support in our classrooms and districts.

 

References

  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26215.
  • National Research Council. 2012. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13165.