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Science and young children: the message from the National Science Education Standards.

In December 1995, the National Research Council released the National Science Education Standards (1996). The development of standards for science education represented nearly five years of work and the involvement of thousands of scientists, community members, educators and parents. The National Science Education Standards document represents a vision - one that is widely shared among science educators. The challenge is to translate that vision into reality in every classroom in the United States. Early childhood educators should carefully review the Standards in order to provide a foundation for developmentally appropriate and fully integrated science experiences and activities in their classrooms.

It may be important, first, to recognize the limits of the Standards' scope. The document is not a federal mandate, so there is no force of law requiring local schools, teachers or communities to pay any attention to these standards. Standards is not a national curriculum, nor is it a set of specifications for a national examination.

Rather, the National Science Education Standards represents a set of criteria for judging quality in: students' scientific knowledge base, teaching excellence, professional development for preservice and inservice teachers, assessment practices (both standardized and teacher-made), and programs and systems that support effective science teaching. The document's greatest strength - moving all of the stakeholders in science education reform, including preprimary and primary level teachers in public and private educational settings, in a common direction - was possible because of the broad-based consensus that marked its development.

The document is divided into six sections. The first one describes how teachers can create learning climates conducive to achieving the standards. Such classrooms capture the wonder and excitement of natural phenomena in our world by incorporating appropriate scientific processes into individual decision-making, cooperative learning experiences and responsive teaching practices. Teachers cannot be expected to do this, however, without adequate preparation and support. The second section addresses the professional development of both preservice and inservice teachers. The third section focuses on assessment practices, including standardized assessments at the national, state and local levels, as well as classroom assessment practices developed by teachers. Progress toward reform in science education can be monitored only with the development of reliable, authentic assessment methods.

The next section focuses on what students should know and be able to do by grades 4, 8 and 12. This section built upon the important work of two major science education reform efforts, "Project 2061" (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1989; AAAS, 1993) and "Scope, Sequence and Coordination" (National Science Teachers Association, 1992).

Were the Standards to stop at this point, teachers would bear an unreasonable responsibility for bringing reform to fruition. Although it acknowledges that teachers are the key to reform, the Standards also recognizes that significant and lasting reform must be systemic. For this reason, two additional sections focusing on program and system standards describe the broader support that must be in place to provide teachers with the necessary tools for success.

What is the message in the Standards for teachers of young children? This article will focus on two areas: Science Teaching Standards, or how we should be teaching and facilitating scientific understanding in young children; and Science Content Standards, or what areas of understanding should be highlighted and made accessible to young children as they construct personal meaning.

How Should We Teach? Science Teaching Standards

Teachers of young children will recognize the picture of science teaching that arises from the National Science Education Standards. The standards focus on a student-centered classroom in which children are active inquirers. They emphasize planning lessons, activities and experiences that focus on children's natural interests and motivations. Children are encouraged to work together to identify and solve relevant problems, rather than passively and individually acquiring arbitrary information. Teachers are encouraged to work with community members and parents, as well as other teachers, to develop quality science programs that permit children to think about the world around them and to critically analyze their choices and the impact their choices have on their community and quality of life.

What would such a classroom look like? A visitor to this classroom would see children clustered in groups, and actively engaged in materials and with each other. Early childhood classrooms like this are rich with language about natural phenomena and the tools that children can use to explore and inquire. Young inquirers plan their activities around relevant and meaningful scientific themes. Children have ready access to a wide variety of equipment and materials that allow them to interact with the natural world of their backyards, neighborhoods and communities.

In this classroom, developmentally appropriate scientific experiences for young children are rooted in daily life; the wonder of living plants and animals, the moon and the stars, and the seas and the sky is never lost. The classroom teacher is a facilitator of group activities. The teacher coordinates experiences at appropriate times and in appropriate contexts, and, most important, observes young children as they actively study science. This classroom provides children with the scientific skills and knowledge that they can apply as they grow and learn.

The image of authentic science teaching in the early years described in the Standards is not a pie-in-the-sky dream. It is happening in countless preprimary and primary grade classrooms throughout the United States.

Mrs. Manco's kindergarten class of 20 children, ages 5 and 6, is working on "discovery centers" in the morning. Small clusters of two or three children have created areas around the room where they can sit and work with materials that have been prepared by their teacher. Children also have easy access to "inquiry tools" they can use to investigate various phenomena and scientific principles. These tools include magnifying lenses, balances, various probing and cutting implements, twine, clay, water and a variety of measuring instruments.

In one corner, two boys are using twine to wrap around apples, oranges, aluminum cans, rocks and a tennis ball. They are talking about how "big around" each object is in relation to the other props. In doing so, the boys are blending their understandings of mathematical principles as they construct understandings of the scientific world. Several children are making leaf rubbings and comparing the sizes, shapes and patterns, while learning about the foliage that thrives on their campus. Two girls are sitting in a corner making imprints of shells in clay as their teacher observes and talks with the children about patterns that various objects make.

As all of these activities proceed, fish are swimming in aquariums, plants are growing by the windows, and Betsy, the class hamster, is burrowing in her cage preparing to have little hamsters ("any day now," according to the young scientists!). These activities, objects and phenomena create an environment that heightens children's awareness of their surroundings, while they develop skills that will enable them to explore in a self-directed, systematic and thoughtful manner.

What Should We Teach? The Content Standards

People most often misperceive the Standards to be a blueprint for a national curriculum when they consider its definition of content. Rather, the content standards seek to outline a set of scientific information that has been judged by educators and scientists to be developmentally appropriate, scientifically sound and sequenced, in order to provide students with the prerequisite knowledge and skills for continued science learning. It is likely that these content standards will positively influence different states, as they develop curriculum frameworks; publishers, as they write new textbooks and curricular series; and assessment companies, as they develop authentic assessment practices. If the Standards continues to stand the test of public scrutiny, this unity of curriculum objectives, instructional materials and assessment strategies will result in a more closely aligned curriculum - one that will promote developmental continuity, from the preprimary grades through elementary grades and on to secondary school science programs (Barbour & Seefeldt, 1993).

Organization of the Content Standards

The content standards are divided into eight broad areas. The section Unifying Concepts and Processes describes the fundamental science knowledge and skills that are common to K-12 grade levels. Although these concepts and processes are constructed to have an appropriate level of complexity in the early grades, they still form a critical foundation for an understanding of what science is all about.

The specific concepts and processes that provide connections among traditional science disciplines and across all grade levels are:

* Systems, order and organization

* Evidence, models and explanation

* Constancy, change and measurement

* Evolution and equilibrium

* Form and function.

Teachers familiar with the inquiry science curricula from the 1960s will recognize several of these topics, because they formed the core of such programs as Science Curriculum Improvement Study (1980), Elementary Science (1978) and Science: A Process Approach (1979).

Another focus of the curricular projects from the 1960s was the notion of science as inquiry. The second of the content standards concerns the belief that children should learn science through active engagement in scientific activities. An inquiry approach to science teaching places investigations at the center of the science program. Students learn through their own investigations about the natural world. Teachers act primarily as facilitators, helping their young learners to construct knowledge obtained from their discoveries.

The National Science Education Standards describes two elements of Science As Inquiry: Abilities Necessary To Do Scientific Inquiry and Understanding About Scientific Inquiry. In order for children to engage in scientific inquiry, they should have access to supportive environments in which they feel comfortable asking questions about the world around them. It comes as no surprise to most early educators that young children are natural inquirers. The key to scientific inquiry lies in how these questions are addressed by teachers, classroom assistants and peers. Adults can encourage each child's active involvement by modeling good listening skills and by communicating clearly. When children are given hasty answers or overly complex explanations, they quickly learn not to ask more questions. Teachers in inquiry-driven classrooms guide children, whenever possible, to seek answers to their own questions. Young children need opportunities to plan, conduct and review simple investigations, to use simple materials and tools for data collection, and to use the information they have collected to answer their own questions. These activities form a process that is meaningful, relevant and child-centered.

For young learners to engage in scientific inquiry, they must understand that science is a process of asking questions and seeking answers. They also should come to the understanding that many questions can be answered, but there are a variety of ways to find the answers. Much of this understanding comes from the modeling that teachers provide. Inquiry science takes place in classrooms where teachers are willing to say, "I don't know, but how do you think we could find out?"

In Ms. Copley's 1st-grade classroom, for example, the students wondered what color of pudding would be most appealing to kindergarten students. Ms. Copley saw in this question an opportunity to engage her students in scientific inquiry. The class decided to make a batch of vanilla (white-colored) pudding and divide it into six portions, each of which they colored differently, using food coloring (the taste and smell would be the same). Next, the 1st-grade students placed a small amount of each color pudding around the rim of a paper plate. Finally, it was time for the survey to begin. Each 1st-grader interviewed a kindergartner to see which color of pudding he/she would select first, second, third, and so forth, until all six were selected. When the class compared notes, they found many similarities in the responses - the students most often selected the brightly colored pudding first. These children were involved in active inquiry, answering a question that they had posed, and using methods that they had developed. This is the scientific process.

The content standards next address knowledge and skills in the areas of Physical Science, Life Science and Earth / Space Science. The table below summarizes the major content areas in these disciplines that are developmentally appropriate for young children:

Physical Science

* Properties of objects and materials

* Position and motion of objects

* Light, heat, electricity and magnetism

Life Science

* The characteristics of organisms

* Life cycles of organisms

* Organisms and environments

Earth/Space Science

* Properties of Earth materials

* Objects in the sky

* Changes in Earth and sky

Teachers use a variety of ways to help their children understand these topics. Ms. Luciano focuses on ladybugs with her kindergarten students, using materials from the Lawrence Hall of Science series, Great Explorations in Mathematics and Science (Echols, 1993). The children observe live ladybugs, make ladybug models and learn about the life cycles of ladybugs. Ms. Luciano even dresses as a ladybug. Mr. Brooks encourages his kindergarten students to explore air pressure and weather as they make clouds in a baby food jar. Using streamers, they plot air currents in their classroom and outside on the playground. Active student involvement in the doing of science as a means to learn the content of science is a common theme in both of these classrooms.

Three additional areas complete the Content Standards portion of the National Science Education Standards. Science and Technology focuses on the interrelationship of science and technology as students explore the designed world. Students explore problems of their world and discover ways in which technology has been applied to solving those problems. Science in Personal and Social Perspectives emphasizes the impact of science on our daily lives in areas such as health, the environment and the role of citizens in a scientific society. The final content area, History and Nature of Science, seeks to portray science as a human endeavor. Students learn about the people who have made scientific contributions. By learning about famous scientists, the students better understand the nature of science and the role that they could possibly play as future scientists.

The table below summarizes the major topics in these three areas that are developmentally appropriate for young children:

Science and Technology

* Abilities of technological design

* Understanding about science and technology

* Abilities to distinguish between natural objects and man-made objects

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

* Personal health

* Characteristics and changes in population

* Types of resources

* Changes in environments

* Science and technology in local challenges

History and Nature of Science

* Science as a human endeavor


Teaching young children is a complex task. At no other level does education serve as wide a range of learners, learning styles and personal understanding. Yet, the answers to providing young learners the most effective and appropriate education is not in simplifying classroom methods, diminishing content areas or reducing school experiences to paper-and-pencil exercises. Developmentally appropriate early childhood classrooms provide young children with opportunities to identify problems and questions in their environment that can be explored. Teachers and children work collaboratively to plan and implement investigations, and to seek answers and solutions that are appropriate for their level of development and understandings.

The National Science Education Standards provides a foundation for teachers to create experiences for young children that will promote inquiry, wonder and understanding. By exploring scientific phenomena and studying their world, children can construct meaning about themselves and their relationship to their world. The skills that can be developed through scientific investigations and the processes associated with inquiry experiences will foster curiosity about daily life, enthusiasm for asking questions and seeking answers, and comfort in working collaboratively with other young scientists.

Note: A useful resource to help teachers of young children understand the National Science Education Standards is the publication Pathways to the Science Standards: Elementary School Edition, available from the National Science Teachers Association, 1840 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201-3000.


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1989). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barbour, N.H., & Seefeldt, C. (1993). Developmental continuity across preschool and primary grades: Implications for teachers. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

Echols, J. C. (1993). Ladybugs. Berkeley, CA: Lawrence Hall of Science.

Elementary science study materials. (1978). New York: McGraw-Hill.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Science Teachers Association. (1992). Scope, sequence and coordination of secondary school science. Vol. 1. The content core: A guide for curriculum developers. Washington, DC: Author.

Science: A process approach. (1979). Lexington, MA: Ginn. SCIIS materials. (1980). Chicago: Rand-McNally.

Steven J. Rakow is Associate Professor, Science Education, and Michael J. Bell is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Education, University of Houston-Clear Lake, Houston, Texas.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Association for Childhood Education International
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Author:Bell, Michael J.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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