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November 1, 2020

A Scientific Age

Now more than ever, we need to prioritize science literacy beginning in students' earliest years of school.

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Instructional Strategies
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If we didn't already know that science was part of our everyday lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear. Science has become part of our daily conversation with family, friends, and colleagues. How does a mask help protect me and the people around me? Why is testing so critical to opening the country back up? How can we avoid a second or even a third wave? We've become accustomed to hearing scientists and medical professionals describe their coronavirus-related models, predictions, and recommendations. The pandemic has underscored that the science-related problems we face with this virus, as well as other pressing issues such as climate change, pollution, and world hunger, are hitting closer to home with each passing decade.

All this means that our early elementary students will need to be more scientifically literate than any previous generation. Their ability to make sound personal, professional, and civic decisions about complex science issues will depend on their understanding of what science is and how it works and their ability to think about, talk about, and apply scientific ideas in their everyday lives. Giving young learners a foundation in science will help ensure that they view science as a dynamic, social, and human-powered endeavor that depends on exploration and observation, reasoning from evidence, and drawing inferences based on findings.

Laying a Strong Science Foundation

Luckily, young children and science are a perfect fit. As curious and persistent explorers, children naturally seek out new experiences, make close observations, and identify relationships and patterns that help them make sense of the world. Yet, while everyone understands why science is included in secondary school curricula, fewer recognize the impact of students' early science experiences in laying a strong foundation. High-quality science instruction early on promotes conceptual understanding, supports evidence-based thinking, and is fundamental to sparking and sustaining students' science identities, interests, and their motivation to do and learn it (McClure et al., 2017).

Unfortunately, few elementary schools prioritize science learning. In a nationwide survey of teachers, Banilower et al. (2018) found that on average, K–2 students spend 18 minutes per day on science, compared with 90 minutes on literacy (and the numbers don't change much in Grades 3–5). For Black and Latino students and students from underserved communities, the lack of high-quality science in elementary classrooms exacerbates the impact of existing science educational opportunity gaps that limit these students' access to supports such as skilled teachers and science experiences and resources both inside and outside of school (Curran & Kellogg, 2016).

In addition, although science literacy was first proposed as a critical component of a high-quality science education almost 30 years ago (AAAS, 1990), change in how science is taught in the early grades has been slow. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) represent the most current effort to help teachers address the science education needs of 21st century students. The NGSS emphasize that in order to learn science, all K–12 students, including students from disadvantaged backgrounds, English-language learners, and students with disabilities, must have many opportunities to do what scientists do, think like scientists think, and know like scientists know. The standards incorporate a set of disciplinary core ideas and cross-cutting concepts in life, physical, and earth/space science and a set of eight science and engineering practices that describe the activities scientists engage in and how their work connects to technology, engineering, and mathematics.

I work with a team of researchers and educators at Education Development Center (EDC), a nonprofit organization that aims to improve education, promote health, and expand economic opportunity globally. We are currently developing three science curriculum units for 1st grade (Light, Sound, and Plants and Animals) that build on the comprehensive science curriculum Insights (EDC, 2003) and align with Grade One NGSS standards.

To bring the curriculum to life and inform the ongoing revision process, we reached out to five 1st grade teachers at two elementary schools to partner with us in piloting the Grade One Light unit. Last spring, these teachers implemented a set of eight sequenced explorations of light with their students immediately before schools closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In the process of piloting, we observed that four components of the curriculum seemed to be key in supporting teachers to promote their students' emerging science literacy.

1. Make the storyline explicit.

A storyline includes an overarching science question that addresses a big science idea and is compelling to students, and a set of investigations that gradually move students toward a deeper understanding of that idea.

In the light unit, the overarching question was: How does light work and how does it help us? Teachers kept the overarching question front and center by introducing it during the first activity, probing for students' initial ideas, and recording them on a chart titled Our Thinking about Light.

During the unit, students used flashlights, mirrors, a variety of objects, a dark box (a box from which light is completely excluded), and their own bodies to explore the answers to questions such as, Where does light come from? Do we need light to see? How does light interact with different objects? How are shadows created? and What can we learn about light by exploring reflections? At the end of each activity, teachers revisited the Our Thinking about Light chart so students could reflect on, revise, and add to their ideas based on new evidence.

After an investigation of shadows, for example, students in one class revised their previous claim that a paperclip was translucent (allows some light through), agreeing instead that the paperclip must be opaque (blocks the light) because it made a paperclip shadow shape on the wall. In another class, a student puzzled over her previous decision to identify windows as transparent (allows all light through) wondering, How can it be transparent when I can see my reflection in it, just like I can with a mirror?

An explicit storyline gives both teachers and students ownership of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where they are headed. Being able to revisit and revise previous ideas introduces students to the idea that science knowledge is both reliable and subject to change based on new evidence, and promotes systematic and flexible thinking.

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First grade students use shadows and mirrors during a science unit to experiment with light. At left, students create a shadow circle with their bodies. In the middle, a girl tries to see the back of her head using two mirrors. At right, a boy bends a mirror to see how his image changes. Courtesy of Education Development Center.

2. Provide opportunities to "mess around."

Before engaging in focused science investigations, students need time and space to familiarize themselves with exploration tools, observe a range of related phenomena, and try out different ways of exploring. In the light module, before students used flashlights in their investigations, teachers let them practice turning the flashlights on and off, changing the width of the beam, and adjusting a flashlight's position to "aim" at various objects. Students were able to preview a variety of phenomena and made observations like, I can make a shadow that's different than the shape of the object! and This block's shadow looks like a sword!

An initial open exploration can also help students figure out how they will investigate and what constitutes evidence. Before addressing the question, How does light interact with different objects? teachers gave students five minutes to openly explore opaque, translucent, and transparent objects with flashlights. They then convened students for a science talk so they could make group decisions about the best way to test the materials and what criteria would count as evidence that light went through an object. They discussed such questions as, Should we hold the flashlight right up against the object or further away? and Do we need to see the light on the wall to know if it went through the object?

These open-ended experiences make space for students' natural curiosity, playfulness, and creativity and get them invested in the investigation. Along with structured explorations, they build students' understanding that science questions can be approached and investigated in a variety of ways and from different perspectives.

3. Focus on teaching students how to think, not what to think.

Science is both a body of knowledge and an active process of investigation, and historically, science education in the early grades has focused on the former. The NGSS Science and Engineering Practices highlight an ongoing shift away from teaching students what to think and toward teaching students how to think like scientists—critically, logically, creatively, and collaboratively. Figure 1 shows examples of how 1st grade students engaged with each of the NGSS practices in the light unit (presented in developmentally appropriate terms).

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First graders need teacher support to engage with the practices in increasingly systematic ways before they can apply them independently. For example, framing investigable questions is an important first step in thinking like a scientist. In the light unit, students initially asked a lot of why questions that suggested explanations rather than active exploration (Why does the mirror make me smaller from farther away? and Why does it look like so many mirrors when I put two together?). Instead of simply giving students the answers to these questions from a book or another resource, teachers helped students reframe their why questions into what and how questions that students could actively investigate (What else can we find out about how our images change as we move closer to and farther from the mirror? and How many images can we make of one object with two mirrors?).

The focus on practice builds students' understanding of science as a dynamic, vibrant, creative, and social process rather than a static body of knowledge. It prioritizes students' active engagement and their central role in constructing their science understanding.

4. Embrace students' misconceptions.

Teachers sometimes hesitate to acknowledge or record students' science misconceptions because they worry about reinforcing incorrect ideas and making them stick. However, students come to school with lots of beliefs about how and why things happen, based on evidence from their own direct but limited experience. By acknowledging, discussing, and addressing these ideas, teachers can set students up to do investigations and experiments that promote conceptual change. In the light unit, misconceptions surfaced immediately when teachers charted students' responses to the question, Where does light come from? Responses included lamps, the computer, fire, and glow-in-the-dark slime, along with smiles, the moon, batteries, and electricity. Rather than correcting students' misconceptions immediately (which can cause students to stick to them more tightly), teachers responded by probing students' thinking (What makes you think that object is a light source?) and using question marks on the chart to indicate areas of disagreement so that conflicting ideas could be revisited in subsequent activities.

One common misconception young students have is that people can see without light. This is a reasonable idea for them to have, considering that few children have actually experienced total darkness. Before investigating the question Do we need light to see?, teachers used an adapted version of the formative assessment probe "An Apple in the Dark" (Keeley, 2018) along with a chart we developed to draw out students' misconceptions and make them available for discussion (see fig. 2 and the video online).

Figure 2. Apple in the Dark Chart

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In the experiment, students used shoeboxes as models of a completely dark cave and placed objects inside their boxes. Students tested (1) whether they could see the objects by looking through a pinhole in the box when the box was totally closed, (2) when a small flap on the top was opened, and (3) when a classmate shined a flashlight through the opening. Although some students' misconceptions persisted after the investigation (many thought they would see the object in the dark box eventually), they did realize that they couldn't see the object right away as many of them had anticipated. Providing experiences that challenge students' misconceptions jumpstarts the process of conceptual change and promotes flexible thinking. It also helps young learners understand the importance of experimentation in investigating scientific questions.

The Gift of Science

When they are adults, our young students will face a range of complex, increasingly global science issues, only some of which we are aware of now. The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the crucial role that scientific literacy will play in supporting the next generation's capacity to make sound, evidence-based decisions for themselves, their families, their communities, and the planet. Bringing high-quality science to our youngest learners will help prepare them for a future that is increasingly science- and technology-oriented. It will also be key to sustaining an authentic, vibrant democracy in which all citizens can knowledgeably participate in science discourse and decision making at the local, state, national, and global levels.

Author's note: The work reported here was supported by the National Science Foundation grant DRL1841189. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations reported here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

References

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (1990). Project 2061: Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

Banilower, E. R., Smith, P. S., Malzahn, K. A., Plumley, C. L., Gordon, E. M., & Hayes, M. L. (2018). Report of the 2018 NNSME+. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research, Inc.

Curran, F. C., & Kellogg, A. T. (2016). Understanding science achievement gaps by race/ethnicity and gender in kindergarten and 1st grade. Educational Researcher, 45(5), 273–282.

Education Development Center, Inc. (2003). Insights: An elementary hands-on inquiry science curriculum, 2nd edition. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Keeley P. (2018). Uncovering student ideas in science: 25 formative assessment probes, 2nd edition. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

McClure, E., Guernsey, L., Clements, D., Bales, S., Nichols, J., Kendall-Taylor, N., et al. (2017). STEM starts early; Grounding science, technology, engineering, and math education in early childhood. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

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