Experimenting with Early Science

On Wednesday (2/8/17), Dr. F. Chris Curran, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, visited UNC to give a talk about the estimated relationship between preschool attendance and kindergarten science achievement. It is also important to note the implications that this early science achievement gap has on kindergarten students (Read the full study here). Dr. Curran was very insightful and referenced studies that he has been involved in regarding science research and potential reasons for the persistence of this achievement gap. This could include variability in verbally given science assessments, accuracy of the measures of “teacher rated science ability,” the quality of the preschool that a child attended, and the lack of attention towards science education in the younger grades of elementary school.

I was initially surprised by Dr. Curran statement that, “Science isn’t getting the attention that we think it is.” The study of science is just as important as reading and math, but why is it being given less attention in early grades? Well, in a section of Dr. Curran’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, the science achievement gaps in children beginning kindergarten in 2010 were observed on a national level. This study took into account ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, preschool experiences, and parenting factors, amongst numerous other variables. While taking these variables into account, science achievement was measured in the fall and spring of a child’s kindergarten year. In the fall, there was a verbally-given standardized science test that was administered to children to gauge previous exposure to scientific topics. In the spring of their kindergarten year, teacher’s completed a “teacher-rated science ability” evaluation for their students. This is how Dr. Curran preceded to determine a gap in early science achievement in comparison to the student’s growing knowledge of reading, English language arts, and mathematics. At this point in the talk, Dr. Curran deemed this to be a policy problem within the school-setting and early elementary curriculum. He noted the importance of supporting our teachers and increasing the training, resources, and standards for teaching science in early grades.

Well, what are some ways that we can promote learning and discussion about science in the early grades of elementary school?

We need to make science FUN! Children should have the opportunity to be adventurous, learn from hands-on activities, and experiment to enhance their understanding of a topic. This needs to be interesting and incorporated into captivating class activities. I have very limited memories about learning science in my early years of elementary school, but I do remember a few activities that really stuck out to me, such as studying animal models, going outside and examining the nature, and learning about plants through growing them in the classroom. I also recall going to the Discovery Place and the North Carolina Raptor Center in order to learn about science in hands-on, natural environments. According to Matt Collins’s article titled, “Start Science Sooner,”

“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.”

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Dr. Curran concluded his talk by explaining how preschool participation is predictive of science achievement in the early months of kindergarten, but that this correlation disappears by the time of spring assessments. In his talk, he addressed the question of whether these gaps had been studied in future grades or whether the implications of these science achievement gaps was affecting students in the later years of their education. Although he has yet to take on this endeavor, it would be interesting to see if there is a significant correlation between these early science achievement gaps and a child’s achievement in future grades. In all, we can conclude that preschool attendance and kindergarten participation are crucial to a child’s development and education. These varieties in science, math, and English language arts curriculum needs to be addressed in schools and parents should be encouraged to take advantage of these early education settings in order to promote success in future education settings.

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