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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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 Education. http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/earlychildhood.aspx
Schulte, Brigid and Alieza Durana. September 28, 2016. The New America Care Report. https://www.newamerica.org/better-life-lab/policy-papers/new-america-care-report/
The ZERO TO THREE Policy Center. https://www.zerotothree.org/
Fostering STEM Trajectories: Bridging ECE Research, Practice, & Policy. 2016. http://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/events/fostering-stem-trajectories/