Cars and plants: following children's interests and teaching science

Front of a car

Regardless of the curriculum, it is important to remember that every lesson portrays an image of science to students and conveys information about what science is and how science works.”

-Deborah L. Hanuscin and Eun J. Lee, Perspectives: Helping Students Understand the Nature of Science. March 2009 Science and Children 46(7): 64-65

One of the four-year-old preschoolers I taught could name almost every model and make of car that passed us on our walk to the park and he wasn’t reading the words on the back of the car. He had spent time with his father, learning to classify them by looking at cars, and talking about them and their identifying features. I could not join in his discussion because I was woefully ignorant of what makes a Chevy a Chevy. But I knew many names of plants in the park and their lifecycle and was eager to share that information with the children.  

When children are enthralled with a topic that is not familiar to us, we may seek to direct their interest to a topic we know more about. Sometimes the information is important for getting along with others, such as taking turns at the drinking fountain. Other times, it is a teacher’s favorite topic, like plants are for me. Acknowledging children’s interests meant switching up my plans. Our class didn’t have a safe front door stoop for observing passing traffic, but we did have a collection of mini model cars that also represented a variety of makes and models. These models served to introduce the topic of using models to represent real objects and ideas—one of the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (NSTA Lead states)—and to introduce the topic of making observations, which is part of the nature of science (NOS). The NOS is usually described as having six to eight aspects, including understanding the difference between observation and inference and that scientific knowledge is both tentative and reliable. (Lederman and Lederman 2004; Quigley 2011).

Through observation of real cars and videos, children knew that to make a real car move, a key is needed to start it, and that some cars are designed to go faster than others. They inferred that the models of “fast” cars would go faster on ramps they constructed in the block area based on their prior experience of viewing those cars in videos. They revised their understanding of how those model cars moved during the many days they tested their ideas, rolling the cars down constructed ramps. Through their explorations of the motion of objects on inclined planes they were beginning to understand that their initial understanding of object motion was tentative and could change with additional experience and testing. There were many variables: wheel size, weight of the model car, distribution of mass, and smoothness of the movement of the axles. The preschool children were not conducting controlled experiments, but the testing by different young scientists reliably produced the same results—certain cars always got down the ramps faster than other cars—and the children revised their understanding.

Dandelion plant viewed from aboveAt the park the children also used the NGSS practices of analyzing and interpreting data and using mathematics and computational thinking as they collected dandelion buds in varying states of bloom—unopened buds, full open yellow blooms, and spherical seed heads—learning about a plant life cycle as we explored the park.

Ashbrook, P. 2014. The Early Years: The Nature of Science in Early Childhood. Science and Children. 52(1): 24-25.

Lederman, N.G., and J.S. Lederman. 2004. Revising instruction to teach nature of science. The Science Teacher 71 (9): 36–39.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states, APPENDIX F – Science and Engineering Practices in the NGSS. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 

Quigley, C., G. Buck, and V. Akerson. 2011. The nature of science challenge. Science and Children 49 (2): 57–61.

WGBH Educational Foundation, Peep and the BIG Wide World. Explore Ramps. Week 2: Building More Ramps, Day 5—Watch and Discuss: Ramp Rolling

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