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STEM in Action: Seattle Public Schools

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Boosting Science in Early Learning

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Many preschool teachers lack skills and confidence in science. A new training program gives science a boost in early learning.

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Sophal Thaiy tended to steer away from teaching science to his preschool students because he wasn't sure how to make science accessible.  “I really didn't know how to take something so complex and simplify it into a way where my preschool students could understand,” says Thaiy, who has taught at Tiny Tots Gentle Dragons preschool at Seattle’s Wing Luke Elementary School since 2005.

But that was before he participated in a preschool science workshop on building structures—an effort of the Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Early Education Collaborative (SEEC) to help preschool teachers grow more comfortable in the area of science and to make high-quality science education materials available to programs serving low-income children.

“The training helped me to simplify my approach. It gave me a step-by-step guide on how to introduce a scientific theme to my students,” Thaiy says.

Preschool teachers, like Thaiy, tend to spend less time on science than on other pre-academic areas because they aren’t comfortable with the subject or feel a lack of confidence teaching it, research shows. As a result, children are less prepared in these subjects when they enter kindergarten. But a 2009 study focusing on teachers in Head Start showed that with professional development, feelings of competence in science increase and teachers are able to blend the concepts into other classroom activities.

“The research shows it’s important to expose students to science at an early age,” says Kirsten Nesholm, the school district science coach who worked with SEEC to apply for a $10,000 Washington STEM grant to support the project. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. The workshop is a model for how to help preschool teachers build their capacity and competence in science through training and classroom-ready materials.

Twenty-five teachers from seven Seattle preschool sites participated in the training. All of the sites serve children from low-income families, and approximately 30 percent of the students are English-language learners.

The science unit Nesholm presented uses blocks and other building materials to introduce young children to STEM-related concepts, such as gravity, compression, and tension. They are also given specific challenges, such as building the tallest structure they can and creating an enclosure for an animal with a roof and access to the outside.

The teachers lead their students in “science talks,” in which children discuss their structures and ask specific questions about other students’ creations. Word “banks” with matching icons also give students ways to describe their work in their notebooks. Professions related to building, such as architecture and construction, are introduced through books and conversation, further increasing the children’s vocabulary.

“Before the training, blocks were always just blocks to me,” reflected Thaiy. “We could build or measure, but I never even considered the science aspect of it.”

Nesholm also provided a shorter version of the same professional development through videoconferencing to five teachers from two schools in Spokane. The teachers didn’t have the building structures kit but instead learned how to incorporate the same STEM skills into their lessons using existing materials.

“Anyone can teach [this unit] with the blocks they have in their classroom,” Nesholm says, adding that if teachers have the learning goals in mind, they can spark preschoolers’ interest in science and raise the activity to a higher level.

Support materials for the unit including letters describing science activities families can do at home are now posted on the school district’s website. In addition to the building structures unit, there is also one on discovering nature and another on exploring water. Nesholm also plans to offer teachers from both the district and community-based programs a course on integrating more writing about science into their teaching.

These efforts, Nesholm says, are creating stronger connections between the city’s preschool programs and the school district so that children will be more prepared for the curriculum when they enter kindergarten.

During follow-up training sessions that Nesholm provided for each of the sites, she was able to tell that teachers were approaching science with a new level of understanding.

“The teachers realized that science is more than just having a little area with things to look at and a couple of magnifying glasses,” Nesholm says. “With this enthusiasm, they will really be doing more science in the future.”

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