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Preschool students at Kruse Elementary School in the Poudre School District in Colorado play at the water table during choice time.
Preschool students at Kruse Elementary School in the Poudre School District in Colorado play at the water table during choice time. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

Whether or not preschool teachers offer science lessons and activities in their classrooms depends largely on how comfortable they are in the topic, according to new research from Michigan State University.

Teachers in the study “were very nervous that they were going to teach science inaccurately to children,” said Hope Gerde, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State and the lead author on the study. “That was keeping them from engaging in science at all.”

That may seem like an obvious conclusion but the same did not hold true for reading and math, even though the teachers interviewed were least likely to be confident in math. Nearly every teacher interviewed, 99 percent, engaged is literacy activities three to four times a week and 75 percent engaged in math activities that often. Only 42 percent offered science lessons that frequently.

The 67 teachers interviewed for the study were all Head Start instructors who had agreed to participate and receive additional professional development in science instruction. Gerde said finding out how the teachers felt about science and what they already knew was the first step to creating a useful professional development program but also yielded interesting findings independently.

Gerde theorizes that the instructional imbalance they discovered is partially a result of the policy focus on literacy over the last 20 years that has resulted in a significant amount of professional development in literacy for preschool teachers. Kindergarten readiness screenings also focus on literacy and, to a lesser extent, math, giving teachers some added motivation to teach those subjects regardless of how much they like them.

Though there is not yet empirical evidence that children’s lack of exposure to science in preschool has a direct effect on their understanding of the subject in later years, it is true that most of the country’s fourth graders perform poorly on the science section of the National Assessment of Education Progress. Only 37 percent of fourth graders scored proficient, and just 1 percent scored advanced, on the 2015 test.

It’s important to note here that American kids do even worse on the reading section of the National Assessment of Education Progress; just 27 percent scored proficient and 9 percent advanced in 2015.

“Science has this fantastic potential to not only promote scientific thinking…but to integrate the literacy, the math—all of the skills together, even social skills.”

Gerde sees the lack of science instruction in the early years as a missed opportunity to improve skills in all three main subject areas.

“Science has this fantastic potential to not only promote scientific thinking and problem solving and inquiry based thought, but to integrate the literacy, the math—all of the skills together, even social skills,” Gerde said. “It is this context in which all these other skills can be learned.”

A sample science activity in a preschool classroom might be as simple as an apple tasting, Gerde said. The point is to teach the kids some scientific ways of thinking. So, a teacher could offer several types of apples to the students. Before they tried them, students could think of questions about the apples. Would they taste sweet or sour? Would they taste different from each other?  Which features of the apples would affect the taste? Would green apples be sweet or sour?

Once they had a question they wanted to test, they would write a simple hypothesis: Red apples will taste sour and green apples will taste sweet. This could be written down or drawn, Gerde pointed out, in a real-world literacy exercise. Then the kids would taste the apples and the teacher could help the class record their findings in a chart, giving them a chance to practice an important math skill.

All along, they’d be working together, sharing information and waiting until the right moment to taste the apples, giving them chances to practice social and self-regulation skills.

Moreover, Gerde said, such inquiry comes naturally to young children. “They’re excited about testing ideas; they’re excited about discovering their world,” she said. “They’re touching, they’re tasting, they’re seeing, they’re hearing, they want to feel things. This can all be science as long as you’re asking questions: What are you seeing? What are you feeling?”

Most Head Start teachers hold a bachelors degree and that held true for Gerde’s sample but she and her team found previous education had no effect on the amount of science instruction teachers offered.

One small sign that things may be changing is that the study found that classrooms today have more science materials than they did in 2006, when a similar review of science materials and activities in preschool classrooms was conducted by Tsung-Hui Tu, now the early childhood technology director at Kent State University. More than 70 percent of the classrooms researchers examined in the new study contained science books, magnifying glasses, toy animals, mirrors, magnets, science-related posters, measuring cups and yarn, all found on a list of 53 science materials for young children originally developed by Tu and slightly modified by Gerde and her team.

Gerde and the rest of her team are now working with the teachers who took part in the survey to help them introduce more age-appropriate scientific activities to their students. Her biggest goal, she said, is to convince teachers that they don’t need to know the answer to every question a child asks in order to turn it into a science experience for the child.

“The answer to the question is far less important than all of the energy put into discovering the answer,” Gerde said.

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