Expanding the Science and Technology Learning Experiences of Children
Thus, experiences that provide direct manipulation of and experience with objects, materials, and phenomena—such as playing in the sink, raising a pet, or going to the playground—are less likely to occur in the home. More and more, it is in the early childhood classroom where this kind of experience with the natural world must take place, allowing all children to build experiences in investigation and problem solving and the foundation for understanding basic science concepts.
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Science is both a body of knowledge that represents current understanding of natural systems and the process whereby that body of knowledge has been established and is continually extended, refined, and revised. Both elements are essential: one cannot make progress in science without an understanding of both. Likewise, in learning science one must come to understand both the body of knowledge and the process by which this knowledge is established, extended, refined, and revised.
Before turning to a deeper discussion of science for the very young, it is helpful to describe our view of science. The goal of science is to understand the natural world through a process known as scientific inquiry. Scientific knowledge helps us explain the world around us, such as why water evaporates and plants grow in particular locations, what causes disease, and how electricity works.
Scientific knowledge can help us predict what might happen: a hurricane may hit the coast; the flu will be severe this winter. Scientific knowledge can also help solve problems such as unclean water or the spread of diseases. Science can guide technological development to serve our needs and interests, such as high-speed travel and talking on the telephone.
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Science means different things to different people. Some think of it as a list of facts once memorized in school. Others understand it as a body of knowledge, including facts, concepts, principles, laws, theories, and models that explain the workings of the natural world. But, as is clear from the quote above, science is more than knowledge and information; it also is a process of studying and finding out—which we call scientific inquiry or science practice. Many scientists also speak of the fun and creativity of doing science.
I used to play with it. Some people, when they think of people doing science, imagine laboratories filled with scientists in white coats mixing chemicals and looking through microscopes. Such images are real, but there are other images of scientists charting the course of a hurricane, studying the behaviors of wolves, searching the skies for comets. But scientists are not the only people who do science. Many jobs involve science, such as electrician, horticulturalist, architect, and car mechanic.
These activities, by scientists and nonscientists, whether happening in the laboratory, in the field, or at home, have in common the active use of the basic tools of inquiry in the service of understanding how the world works. Children and adults, experts and beginners, all share the need to have these tools at hand as they build their understanding of the world.
May Today I asked the kids at the snail table to draw pictures of the snails. I gave her a choice then — saying she could draw pictures of snails or play in a different area. Her snail pictures involved a lot of zigzaggy lines, and I tried to understand what they represented to her. Then after awhile I figured out that the zigzags were the paths where the snail moved.
So at lunch I arranged for the kids who hang out by the snail table to sit together and I joined them.
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And we talked snails. Delmy said the snail walks like we walk but just with two feet. Joanna said he goes slow and demonstrated by walking two fingers lightly and slowly across the table; and John said the snail runs fast with lots of feet. So, I had the idea to cover a table with easel paper and have the kids follow the path of some snails with pencil and see the shape of the trails they made.
At first, Christine just wanted to play with snails, and I said okay, but then when she saw the other kids tracing the paths of different snails, she wanted to join in, too. After awhile, they used string to track the snail trails and ended up with different length lines and loops. These notes provide an image of science teaching and learning in the early childhood classroom in which teachers and children are engaged in inquiries into scientific phenomena—animal behaviors and, more specifically, the behaviors of snails.
They suggest the potential of 3- to 5-year-old children to engage in the practices of science. Children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, much of which is implicit…. Contrary to older views, young children are not concrete and simplistic thinkers…. Children can use a wide range of reasoning processes that form the underpinnings of scientific thinking, even though their experience is variable and they have much more to learn.
The content of science for young children is a sophisticated interplay among concepts, scientific reasoning, the nature of science, and doing science. It is not primarily a science of information. While facts are important, children need to begin to build an understanding of basic concepts and how they connect and apply to the world in which they live. And the thinking processes and skills of science are also important. In our work developing curriculum for teachers, we have focused equally on science inquiry and the nature of science, and content—basic concepts and the topics through which they are explored.
In the process of teaching and learning, these are inseparable, but here I discuss them separately.
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Their curiosity and need to make the world a more predictable place certainly drives them to explore and draw conclusions and theories from their experiences. But left to themselves, they are not quite natural scientists. Children need guidance and structure to turn their natural curiosity and activity into something more scientific. They need to practice science—to engage in rich scientific inquiry. The cycle begins with an extended period of engagement where children explore the selected phenomenon and materials, experiencing what they are and can do, wondering about them, raising questions, and sharing ideas.
This is followed by a more guided stage as questions are identified that might be investigated further. This structure is not rigid, nor is it linear—thus the many arrows.
Science Inquiry and the Nature of Science
And while it is used here to suggest a scaffold for inquiry-based science teaching and learning, it closely resembles how scientists work and, in interesting ways, how children learn. Scientific inquiry provides the opportunity for children to develop a range of skills, either explicitly or implicitly. The following is one such list:. This description of the practice of doing science is quite different from some of the science work in evidence in many classrooms where there may be a science table on which sit interesting objects and materials, along with observation and measurement tools such as magnifiers and balances.
Too often the work stops there, and little is made of the observations children make and the questions they raise. Another form of science is activity-based science where children engage in a variety of activities that generate excitement and interest but that rarely lead to deeper thinking. There are a multitude of science activity books that support this form of science in the classroom.
Thematic units and projects are yet other vehicles for science work in the classroom. These can be rich and challenging; however, they may not have a focus on science. John proposed that we should rethink how we look at the entire learning enterprise, suggesting that the school and free-choice learning sectors and I would add the workplace be considered components of a single, larger educational infrastructure St. John and Perry, He used the term 'infrastructure' to describe the system of supports, conditions, and capacities that permit the smooth functioning of daily life.
Infrastructures represent essential undergirding for a variety of activities; for example, the highway infrastructure facilitates transportation, and an infrastructure of community services such as a fire and police department permits a community to function smoothly. The educational infrastructure in a community supports and facilitates the learning that takes place there. From this perspective, the learning infrastructure is vital to a nation's economic as well as intellectual and spiritual wellbeing. The educational entities that provide citizens with current and accurate knowledge and information, whether about health, politics, economics, the arts, or science, form the fundamental backbone of the knowledge economy.
The explosion of the Internet and the World Wide Web provides significant testimony to the perceived value of having a readily accessible tool that can provide virtually anyone, anywhere, with any information, any time.
The Web, though, is just one aspect of an ever expanding, and hopefully improving, network of learning resources available to the general public. The science and technology learning journey of twenty-first-century citizens will require many way stations, each helping to fulfill part of the citizen's learning needs. What the world needs is a richly integrated, broadly supported educational infrastructure, a system of support that will enable millions of unique individuals to meet their widely varying science and technology learning needs any time of the day, at any point in their life.
This basic educational infrastructure already exists, composed of schools and universities, the Internet, print and broadcast media, libraries, community-based organizations, the workplace, and friends and family see Figure 1.
Ideally, all of these educational entities work together to support and sustain science learning across the life span Johnston, The science and technology educational infrastructure serves as a web of influence that shapes people's understanding, attitudes, aesthetic beliefs, etc. The entire science and technology educational infrastructure provides value and support to any nation, and the entire infrastructure needs to be valued and supported. The implications of this infrastructure idea is that we look for science and technology teaching and learning in novel places.
With our assistance, over the last ten years they have been exploring and experimenting with ways to tap into the vast resource of amateur astronomers. With funding from the National Science Foundation, they have involved these astronomers in supporting elementary and middle school teaching in classrooms through "Project ASTRO" and are now involved in "Family ASTRO," an effort to provide fun and engaging astronomy experiences to families through the network of museums, science-technology organizations, and community-based organizations such as scouts. This effort represents a creative way of brokering connections within the science and technology education infrastructure.
Leadership in free-choice science and technology learning.