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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Seeding Early Science in Northern Iowa

Published:  May 27, 2010
Publication Image

from the

Center for Early Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

at the University of Northern Iowa.

More than 60 science educators from around the country gathered in Cedar Falls, Iowa, earlier this week for a first-of-its-kind meeting focused on two questions: How do we give young children more opportunities for high-quality, hands-on introductions to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)? And how – given costs and resource constraints – do we develop the early childhood workforce so that it can teach science well? 

“Think about the attention being paid to STEM and the Obama administration’s interest in early childhood,” said Betty Zan, director of the Center for Early Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa, which hosted the conference. “If you put these two together, it’s a perfect storm. We have to seize this opportunity.”
As director of the Early Education Initiative, I had the privilege of joining the group. We met over three days in a Rotary Club center in rural Northern Iowa, where the backdrop of farmland and the Cedar River offered a constant reminder of how teachers could use the natural world to stimulate early learning in science. (The conference was called STEM in Early Education and Development, or SEED for short.)
Here are smattering of highlights from the myriad thoughtful presentations -- with questions and critiques that occurred to me as I listened. (I’d love to hear your thoughts too – please add your comments below):
  • Lillian Katz, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign, prompted vigorous nods and ongoing discussion by setting up this dichotomy: “We overestimate children academically but we underestimate them intellectually.” (She also called for resisting standards and outcome measures -- a stance that I worry could discourage science educators from making a strong case for the significance of their work.)
  • At least two presenters – Kimberly Brenneman, a psychologist at Rutgers University, and Daryl Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of Miami – considered how assessments should fit into science explorations in the early years. Participants also discussed how to use a tool called STERS (for Science Teaching and Environment Rating Scale), created by the Education Development Center in Newton, MA. (As with any assessment of young children, this is an area that is critically important and yet fraught with complexity. How do you avoid tests that simply quiz children on their knowledge of vocabulary, for example? Brenneman’s paper described one intriguing option: a game-like online test that measures children’s curiosity.) 
  • Several presenters emphasized the importance of taking seriously children’s questions about how the world works (“Why do leaves fall? Where do rainbows come from?”) and using them as opportunities not for didactic instruction but for guiding children to reflect, gather evidence, and probe further. “In early childhood, we’re obsessed with asking children: How are you feeling today?,” said Cindy Hoisington, a professional development specialist at EDC. “Nobody asks: What are you thinking about? What is your idea about that?” (As pointed out by several participants, many teachers are not confident in their own knowledge of science to encourage questions. They are scared to admit they don’t know the answers. Clearly there is a need not only for professional development programs but also for more content-rich teacher preparation programs at the university level.)
  • Many participants talked about the necessity of replacing lessons that many early educators consider almost sacrosanct in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Why introduce children to a unit on something remote and untouchable like the jungle when the tall grass prairie is outside to be explored? Why spend 10 minutes each morning on the calendar when children could have more concrete math experiences counting objects they can touch and see? Instead of putting plastic frogs in a “water table” – a shallow basin designed for children to dip their hands into – why not give kids tubes, turkey basters and cups to explore how water moves from one container to another? (As an attendee without a science education background, these were eye-opening examples to me. They stand as evidence of how much more rigorous and enriching today’s preschool programs could be.) 
  • A video of first-graders building intricate ramps and pathways for rolling marbles captivated everyone’s attention on Tuesday afternoon. The video showed how Beth Dykstra Van Meeteren -- a teacher at the Freeburg Early Childhood Program and instructor at the University of Northern Iowa -- adapted part of the “literacy block” in her daily schedule to introduce children to engineering and physical science. (The children in the video spent nearly an hour on their projects, prompting questions about how to carve time out of already packed daily routines so that children can do the experimentation and exploration that science requires.)

Many other provocative discussions and papers came out of the meeting, and the staff at UNI promised to compile the proceedings for distribution or publication over the coming months. And as with any good intellectual exercise, the meeting ended Tuesday night with more questions than answers.  The Iowa conference was a stimulating start to what we hope will be a new generation of science education customized for the early years.

UPDATE, 1:26 p.m. on May 27: I just received the latest issue of the journal Better Evidence-based Education, which has devoted its entire issue to the importance of improving science education. It includes a summary of how the province of Alberta, in Canada, rewrote its elementary school science program based on new research. Check it out.

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