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Helping Preschool Teachers Shake Off Fear of Science Education

Preschool-Science-Outdoors-Bugs-Getty.jpgPreschool teachers don't feel comfortable teaching science—and it shows in their classroom practice, according to a new study

But science education for young children doesn't need to be a slog or a bore, said Hope K. Gerde, an associate professor at Michigan State University who was the lead author on the study. It just means capitalizing on children's natural curiosity about the world around them.

"Children are natural scientists. They love asking questions," Gerde said. "They want to know what's happening to these leaves that fall, why it's cold outside, why things are floating or sinking, why the colors are mixing in their paints. ... why we want to capitalize on that is because it's natural for them. It's directly related to what they're doing, and it makes a difference for their science skills later." 

Preschool teachers spend about 4 to 8 percent of their instructional time on early-science concepts, and the picture isn't much improved for elementary school—teachers there devote only 6 to 13 percent of their time teaching science. And that low exposure to science may be one of the reasons that American children lag their international peers on measures of science knowledge, this study suggests.

Gerde wanted to measure teachers' perceptions of their own skills in different academic subject areas. She was also interested in learning whether having a high sense of enjoyment and ability in one area would spill over into other subjects. 

The study of 67 Head Start classrooms asked teachers to measure their own ability and enjoyment of the subjects of literacy, math, and science. The study also measured how often teachers engaged in those activities.

Teachers rated their ability and enjoyment, or "self-efficacy," highest in literacy. Their sense of self-efficacy was significantly lower for science, and lowest for math. 

Instructionally, the Head Start teachers spent most of their time in literacy tasks—99 percent reported engaging in literacy instruction three to four times per week. In contrast, 75 percent of teachers said they spent that much time on math, and only 42 percent said they taught science concepts to their young pupils that often. Even teachers who didn't feel entirely comfortable with math still spent instructional time on the subject, but that didn't appear to be the case for science instruction. 

 As one might expect, teachers who enjoyed science and felt they were good at it were more likely to spend time talking about science concepts with their young students. But the classrooms, generally, had few science materials, and those they had were low-quality. Classrooms had books, toy animals, measuring cups and magnifying classes. They were far less likely to have collections of natural materials such as seashells and feathers, or other types of materials like prisms, fossils, or pulleys, the study found. 

Teacher training programs and professional development for teachers who are already in the field could benefit from an infusion of science education, Gerde said. And that doesn't have to mean adding much more to a busy day.

"What we typically say is a key part of this is to get teachers excited about it. Help them have that sense of wonder that children already have," she said. 

The Education Department has a guide for preschool educators called "Let's Talk, Read, and Sing About STEM" that offers ideas on how to infuse science concepts into the early-childhood classroom.

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