Friday, February 19, 2010

What to do About Science Education

Start Science Sooner

Seems like an easy fix, but it's not.
Good science education at the earliest grades is supremely important, but in most classrooms it gets short shrift. Studies have found that children in kindergarten are already forming negative views about science that could cast a shadow across their entire educational careers. When researchers interviewed kindergartners from typical classrooms, barely a third of the children showed any knowledge of science, whether from school or other sources. Many children said that science was for older kids and adults, not kindergartners like them. They talked of science being about magic potions or dangerous chemicals; they said science is hard, science is not interesting, and ‘I am not good at science.’ Ask a room of five-year-olds to draw a scientist, and you will likely get lots of pictures of white-coated men in laboratories. Furthermore, even before first grade, fewer girls than boys say they like science.

There are innovative projects working to improve science education. Here are a couple:
Educational psychology researchers at Purdue University have developed an approach for teaching science in kindergarten that integrates it with language. The combination not only makes science instruction more appealing to teachers who are very mindful of language arts core curriculum requirements. It also enhances language learning by providing situations in which written language is used for a genuine purpose—recording and reporting predictions and observations—instead of a task devoid of any real context. And the kindergartners delight in learning words they would usually never encounter in kindergarten lessons, such as “excrete” (even if they cannot always spell them correctly).

The Purdue approach, the Scientific Literacy Project (, introduces children to the most fundamental idea—that science is about carefully conducted inquiry to learn about the world—and shows them that everyone can do science. The lessons do not depend on expensive equipment or the latest in animations and computer games. Low-tech methods suffice, including experiments as simple as seeing if salt will dissolve, reading well-chosen nonfiction books—which many adults mistakenly imagine to be inappropriate or uninteresting to such young children—and maintaining individual science journals.

The researchers found that students participating in their project showed significant gains relative to those taking traditional classes. The kindergartners readily developed skills related to asking questions, conducting observations and experiments, drawing conclusions and sharing their findings—and had tremendous fun along the way. The project showed its worth for children of diverse ethnic and social backgrounds, and, most interestingly, it eliminated the gender gap in attitudes. A group at the University of Illinois at Chicago developed a similar project—Integrated Science-Literacy Enactments (—for grades 1 through 3.

In the end,
Children are natural scientists: not only are they inquisitive and energetic, but they have an instinct for controlled experimentation. The goal of science education at the earliest levels should be to encourage and refine children’s innate love of exploring the world around them and to help that enthusiastic behavior grow into true scientific literacy.

1 comment:

Mark Viquesney said...

I guess I live in a bubble because the kids I know love science, and they love science since before kindergarten when the parents answered all their questions (why is the sky blue, where do rainbows come from) by doing simple science experiments that they found on the web. Then again, most of the parents I do know are educators - so maybe that has something to do with it.


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