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. 

Synthesis Brief: Uncovering the Brilliance of Children: Science in Elementary

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It has long been understood that, under the right conditions, young learners are able and interested in exploring, discussing, and thinking about science and engineering.  Moreover, students in the preK-5 years do not think within disciplinary boundaries, so science learning can have positive interactions with learning across the board. Yet studies show that preK-5 students in general have little access to meaningful science and engineering education, and some students experience serious inequities in this as well as in other areas of instruction.

A recently released report, “Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educations” from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) surveyed the research literature in  the United States. The STEM Teacher Leadership Network’s June 2022 Theme of the Month introduced participants to key insights from this report, as four elementary science teacher leaders discussed the challenges they see within their districts and shared some of the strategies they have developed to bring more and better science learning to elementary students.

The moderator for the panel was K. Renae Pullen a science specialist in the Caddo Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, a consulting expert with the National Academies, a PAEMST Awardee, and an NSTA/NCTM STEM Teacher Ambassador.  The panelists included Carolyn Colley, the science instructional facilitator at the Sartori Elementary in Renton, Washington; Lesley Gates, a science content specialist with the Fresno County (California) Superintendents of Schools; and Cindy Soule, a PAEMST Awardee and teacher leader, at the Gerald E. Talbot Community School in Portland, Maine.

K. Renae Pullen, who was a consulting expert for the NASEM report, set the stage in her introductory blog with this problem statement:

Providing children with the opportunity to engage in meaningful science learning experiences 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 and comprehensive ways. These challenges often disproportionally impact students who have been historically marginalized.

In her introduction to the webinar, K. Renae Pullen succinctly sketched the key characteristics of "robust and comprehensive" preK-5 science:  Instruction should be "anchored in design problems and phenomena that are conceptually rich and accessible";  these phenomena should be  "things that kids want to learn about, and find out"; instruction should take place in a safe, collaborative, and discourse-rich space, reflecting the social nature of science and of science learning: and science education is about the whole child, recognizing the community and cultural setting of the students, and the learning resources they bring with them to the classroom.

Children bring their rich experiences, their language, their diverse understandings of the classroom, to the classroom, and when teachers are able to elicit and notice and value and then build on the ideas that the kids are bringing to the classroom, and their different experiences, and the different ways they communicate, when teachers are able to do that, they can help kids make sense of the natural and design world in really innovative ways.

The report also pays attention to teachers' learning, both pre-service and in-service.  This is critical to improving in elementary science, as elementary teachers are often not confident about or well-prepared for teaching science.  Furthermore, the report addresses the administrative and policy conditions that support good science education, particularly in a policy climate that prioritizes literacy and mathematics with the unintended effect of marginalizing other subjects.  Finally, the NASEM authors identified gaps in the research literature that still need to be filled. 

The report's recommendations argued that any effective path towards better preK-5 science education must build from and make use of the existing strengths of elementary school students and teachers.  This attitude is evident throughout the resources gathered for this Theme of the month; it was also evident during the webinar, as the three panelists presented several strategies and resources that they created and employ which illustrate or amplify some of the NASEM's findings.

I. Science and literacy, science/literacy

Cindy Soule prefaced her remarks by talking about some of her motivation in teaching science:

As far as my passion for science...There was always that natural spark, that passion has just developed even further as a teacher....I love seeing that same exact spark of joy within my students, and once their curiosity, they ask questions, and when they figure something out and they make sense of something as a community, it is so powerful and it really has just shifted the engagement and motivation of all my learners and it's just a really powerful thing to see.

 Soule told how issues she noted in her literacy work led her to incorporate more science into the curriculum (noting that a recent study reported that on average Maine elementary students have a total of nine hours of science instruction per year).  Soule saw that the "best practices" for literacy education were not reaching some of her students:

I was doing all the things that people told me should be moving my students.  I was working with black and brown students, linguistically gifted students, students who have learning differences, and those students were not making the gains that they needed to be making. I just was not willing to accept that this was the answer, and so I came to science.

Soule and her colleagues began looking for ways to address ELA learning goals while exploring science and engineering.  A key ingredient was finding rich phenomena, which engaged children's curiosity, and encouraged both science inquiry and the use and development of language skills through classroom discourse. As she said of a professional development workshop that made a decisive difference for her teaching,

We did the whole thing, the phenomena, we went through each process, and that changed the way I felt about doing this work, and it led to my recent recognitions because this gave me the foundation I needed to do science really well at the elementary level.

She described how many kinds of discourse are fostered during a science project.  An investigation of windmills for generating electricity (a topic of great interest in Maine communities),  or a unit on modeling matter, generated conversations, pictorial and graphical representations, written and oral presentations, and the construction and critique of models, a powerful "language" in its own right.  "

What happened was the motivation and engagement shifted, and we're creating a culture in our school of asking questions, of being curious, of building things that might not work. Some of those windmills didn't work, but they tried again and it just really creates these amazing communities where people are learning new things together.

Cindy Soule mentioned several principles that are important to the way she and her school have approached the enhancement of elementary science.

"We are agents of change."  A key feature of her school was a view shared by her colleagues and district leadership that " we are agents of change and we can do this together."  With this attitude the system is prepared to support strategic action to improve education.  " If you're asking teachers to do science, and they're saying there's no time, how can you make a schedule that aligns to your school's vision?"

Honor adult learners. To support innovation, teachers need support for their own capacity building.  Good science PD for elementary teachers builds from their strengths and interests, and acknowledges the assets and identities that each teacher brings.  "Elementary teachers are well-grounded in math and in literacy; if we can link the science to that, it can really help teachers feel more confident,  and create learning opportunities that mirror what we want to be happening in the classroom, so us teachers can build the background knowledge to be the facilitators of our brilliant young scientists in the making."

Support for community-based action.  "Our STEM coordinator and social studies coordinators are working with vertical teams to create those, and tapping into Indigenous knowledge, and tapping into local community partners."  Such community partnerships can have many benefits for the children and teachers, grounding the learning in meaningful phenomena, promoting learning that also makes a contribution to the community. This both promotes activism and can "affirm and celebrate the identity of all students by teaching student science and sense making as a community."

II. Integration: avoiding the pitfalls, seeing the rewards

Carolyn Colley then elaborated on the idea of curriculum integration already introduced by Cindy Soule and encouraged participants to read Chapter 6 in the NASEM report, on the "potentials and pitfalls of integrating across domains."  The report argues that "Integration can benefit all domains if the design (a) respects the unique content and disciplinary practices of all domains, (b) leverages meaningful and mutually supportive connections among the subject areas, and (c) is developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate. "

Dr. Colley made some observations during a third-grade unit on weather, climate, and animal survival which she wrote and piloted this year. The complexity of the design challenge, as well as the desire to achieve coherence, were evident in her account.  One of her goals was to create a unit that was well integrated across several domains, so that the learning goals and content areas of each domain were represented, and yet the learning experience was coherent and not disjointed. She explained that her intent for these young children was not to "teach climate change," but to lay some foundations for later learning.  Engaged by their learning about animal lives, they incorporated weather and climate information about the animal's habitat into their writings.

The engagement stimulated "extra random writing" — the students followed up on emerging interests, and this enlarged the scope of the science that they were thinking about. In the course of the unit, the students were motivated in a natural way to seek and interpret data as a way to gain insight into their own questions: "that also really helped kids use data meaningfully and not just tell me numbers on a bar graph."

The situated, meaningful use of data was also stimulated by bringing forward the human element of science, reminding the students the data that they were looking at were collected by real people with real questions: 

Here are these scientists, here are these engineers, here are the people that are going out and collecting the data that you're looking at...I tried to find local people to us, too. Then when we looked at the data, after [students] understood how it was collected, who collected it, and they would look at the graph and we'd review some math skills at the time we did this.The engagement stimulated new questions, and the integration across the subject domains had the result that students might have science or math questions (or insights) at unexpected points during their day. They knew they could research answers during independent reading time with online books and books from their classroom library

This is one way to see true integration, which can deliver on some of the potentials noted by the NASEM report, and avoid the pitfalls that can arise in what has been called the "layer cake" approach, in which disciplinary boundaries constrain  the students' ability to freely examine, probe, and discuss a rich phenomenon with all the different tools they are learning, from literacy to math to science to art and social studies.

Carolyn ended with another example of a rich question emerging from deep student engagement, as students reasoned their way towards the importance of measuring ice thickness as well as ice extent in the Arctic:

[We were] looking at the area of sea ice showing two pictures of scientists that are measuring sea ice, and asking, “What do you think they're doing? Why?” Then a little short reading about it [or] a video clip of a scientist telling about their job. Once students had some sense of how to measure, we had them try it a little bit with aerial photos of sea ice.[A boy] handed me a sticky note: my group says we need data on ice thickness, and I said, why? He said, because if you look at the pictures, there looks like there's area, but there's some disconnect...Then they're like, well, could you have a big area, but it's super thin?

 Students’ questions and conjectures about climate, habitat, and animal survival drove a need for additional data and information for teachers to use with students in uncovering answers and understanding how changes in climate and habitat affect the living and nonliving things in those places.

III. Lesson design with children's books

Lesley Gates, like the other panelists, sees science teachers and learners as agents of change:   "I truly believe that the people who ask the why and how questions, are the people who are going to change our world for the better. It is our elementary students who do that the best." She described how she deploys the power of children's literature to support students as they learn about their world, with the tools and concepts of science, math, and all the disciplines — and sometimes find ways to put them to practical use to change their world.  This is another "take" on the theme of integration as a strategy for "uncovering the brilliance" of our children in elementary science.

Lesley referenced the well-known "5E" model now incorporated into curriculum design for the NGSS of instruction, and its five phases Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. (see a short overview here)

She recommended selecting books that support the student with each stage of the learning cycle, noting that the kinds of books selected will vary across genres. As part of her presentation, Lesley gave examples of books for each "E";  her slides with recommended titles can be found here, and an extensive spreadsheet of resources with notes on connections with the standards and other factors, by subject matter and grade level, can be found here.

 Books that help engage the students — engage their interest, their imagination, their humor, their identity — foster their awareness of a phenomenon, and connect them with it.

When the class starts to explore the science more deeply, "We're really looking for gathering data and we can use children's literature to gather data. Most of the time it's observational data."  This is appropriate for elementary students, and foundational for their later science learning, since observation entails looking deeply at the phenomenon of interest, and is basic to all other science inquiry.

When the students are ready to begin accounting for their observations (explain), thinking towards explanatory models and making use of evidence, it is important that the students build their conceptual tool kit.  Different kinds of reading then can support their learning:

..of course, the explain phase is probably where a lot of text will come into a science classroom, because this is that informational text that we are very commonly used in the science classroom...informational text with beautiful images, beautiful scientific information, that students can really dig into to build that vocabulary and start making that scientific conceptual connections.

Learning is deepened and made more robust when concepts, practices, and other tools are taken out of the original context and used to extend knowledge in new areas — most often, to new phenomena.  Like other aspects of science, this need not be a solemn matter!

...the elaborate phase is where can we get kids to think about what they've learned, and apply it to a new favorite one... is using Pancakes, Pancakes after exploring physical and chemical changes in fifth grade. [in] every step, every page basically, they have to identify if it's a physical or chemical change, and then of course the ultimate culmination is they actually make pancakes in the classroom, because you have to do that!

Putting science to work to solve a problem is another way to consolidate learning, and connect that learning to something real in the children's world:  

I love using children's books for engineering because it's a great way to get kids involved and students involved in thinking about what problems are being posed in this book? How can we solve those problems?


Thus, though the webinar began with a sober diagnosis of the challenges of increasing science in elementary schooling, the experts on our panel (and the other participants in the chat and break-outs) provided stimulating evidence that strategies that focuses on rich phenomena, an inclusive and collaborative culture of science discourse, and builds on elementary teachers' strengths, opens the door to high-quality education. Science is then woven into the fabric of the children's learning — sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background — just as it is in the world at large.

Recommendations for teacher leaders

The NASEM report is full of recommendations for teacher leaders, so the first recommendation coming out of this Theme is that teacher leaders should take the time to read the report.   Teacher leaders can play an important role by framing curricular and pedagogical innovations in the context of elementary teachers' strengths, and working to increase their awareness of the "science dimensions" of the subjects they already feel comfortable teaching.  Co-teaching and other in-service supports are invaluable, PD should also include solid opportunities for teachers to themselves engage with phenomena together — exploring, explaining, and elaborating out of their own curiosity.  

Recommendations for administrators and policy makers.

As with teacher-leaders, a first recommendation is that administrators and policy makers should read the NASEM report, because the authors treated the challenges and opportunities of elementary science education as systemic questions, and the report directs careful attention to the role of administrators.

The STEMTLnet webinar and related resources make clear that if science is going to be accessible to elementary students in an authentic and equitable fashion, teachers will need to learn, practice, reflect and collaborate.  The most precious resource, therefore, is time — time in the schedule for science, but also time in the schedule for teacher learning.  Collaborative planning between administrators and teachers should seek to realize teacher learning as a regular, endemic feature of the school's culture, and policy-makers should help administrators (and others) of the best practices for teacher PD that have been identified by educational research in the past 40 years.

Recommendations for researchers

Although the NASEM report makes many recommendations where additional research is needed in elementary science, one area of strategic importance is the study of aspects of school culture that support the (re)integration of science into elementary teaching and learning.  Such research could examine teacher learning barriers with respect the NGSS science practices, as well as strategies and issues that may arise as teachers practice cross-curriculum design to integrate science.  What are factors that support the emergence of effective teacher leadership for elementary science?  In what ways do state or local standards or assessments constrain or support the rich and equitable implementation of elementary science?  What conceptual or other barriers affect administrators' effective advocacy or support for elementary science, and to what extent do district cultures (and social networks) support or constrain innovation in elementary schools?