The committee was charged with examining the available evidence on science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades, including the approaches and strategies that can be used by teachers, providers of professional learning opportunities, administrative leaders, education researchers, and policy makers to provide all children with high-quality learning experiences. Science and engineering have contributed to systemic injustices against historically marginalized communities, shaping the relationships these individuals and communities have with science and engineering and how they engage with learning. Engaging all children in science and engineering requires significant changes to what both children and teachers do in the typical classroom, what curricular materials promote, and what school systems value. Because many aspects of science and engineering are part of children’s daily lives, contextualizing science learning by integrating what children bring to the classroom into science and engineering instruction can support learning.
The committee considered the four approaches to equity outlined in Chapter 1 and threaded throughout the report: (1) increasing opportunity and access to high-quality science and engineering learning and instruction; (2) emphasizing increased achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering; (3) expanding what constitutes science and engineering; and (4) seeing science and engineering as part of justice movements. Together, these four approaches comprise a spectrum of ways that the field can work toward equity and justice in preschool and elementary science and engineering, with the third and fourth centering more squarely on justice.
Individual educators, districts, and states differ in how they orient to and address issues of equity and justice, both in general and in the specific context of preschool through elementary science and engineering. Furthermore, any efforts—whether they are focused on increasing the amount of science or engineering taught to children, improving the quality of that instruction, providing wider representation of who does science and engineering, recognizing a wider variety of ways of knowing in science and engineering, or full-on taking up issues of, for example, environmental justice or health disparities—can serve to help schools and other settings for learning work toward equity and justice in important ways. Therefore, the report has attempted to make visible approaches to engaging in the full range of facets of this work, and has aimed to be supportive of educators interested in working toward change or in expanding on their existing work. The committee recognizes that the kind of curricular, instructional, and relational work described in this report can be hard and uncomfortable. It can require difficult introspection on one’s own (perhaps unconscious) biases, reflection on current and past practices and their effects on children, tough conversations with colleagues or administrators, and perhaps challenging relationships with families. At the same time, this work may lead to positive impacts for children and educators as well as the fields of science and engineering. Toward these ends, individuals or groups of individuals (e.g., teachers, leaders, grade-level teams, state science coordinators, policy makers) may work for change via these four approaches to equity; ultimately, systemic change will be needed to help move those smaller efforts along.
Using a similar structure to the report’s Summary, this chapter synthesizes the committee’s conclusions and recommendations for policy, practice, and research drawn across the full report and presents steps toward a new vision for science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades that emphasizes equity and justice in the work. The chapter concludes with areas for future research.
What follows first are the committee’s conclusions based on the review of the available evidence on science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades, organized by key themes. The committee first articulates issues with respect to the prioritization of science and engineering in these early grades. Then, the committee more explicitly emphasizes how children learn and become more proficient in science and engineering and how the design of learning environments can support children’s engagement in investigation and design; this is followed by a discussion of the roles of curriculum and content integration. The committee then describes conclusions related to how to support educators in their work and the role of
district and school leadership. These collectively describe the approaches that actors at different levels of the system need to consider for enhancing science and engineering teaching and learning throughout preschool and elementary school.
The committee notes that efforts to build toward the vision of the Framework while deepening attention to justice are nascent. These conclusions identify promising starting points for this integrative work. In subsequent sections, the committee makes recommendations and points to areas for further research to move these connected visions closer to reality.
Prioritizing Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades
The research described throughout this report has highlighted how children explore phenomena, designs, materials, and relationships in their worlds. Despite the research showing that children can engage in science and engineering from a young age and that they find such activity interesting and meaningful, for a number of different reasons, science and engineering are often not attended to in robust and comprehensive ways in state policies, particularly for preschool through elementary grades (see Chapter 2). The lack of attention in policies constrains the time and resources (e.g., curriculum materials, assessments, physical and digital resources, professional learning experiences) for teaching science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades. Chapter 2 also describes the impact of high-stakes accountability policies and how emphasis on performance on these measures has decreased the time overall for science in elementary classrooms. High-stakes accountability policies have also led to children who receive support services being tracked or pulled out from instruction in other content areas (e.g., science and social studies); the burgeoning growth of policies such as third grade reading laws exacerbates some of these issues. The neglect of science and engineering education in the preschool through elementary years deprives children of opportunities to develop understanding and skills that are building blocks for success in subsequent grade levels and for active participation in a democratic society; it further deprives them of their right to engage with the wonders of the natural and designed worlds.
CONCLUSION 1: Children engage in meaningful science and engineering from a very young age, across multiple contexts and settings.
CONCLUSION 2: Science and engineering instruction is under-resourced and not highly prioritized in preschool through elementary schools, with engineering receiving even less attention. These concerns are exacerbated
in under-resourced schools, which disproportionately impacts children and communities of color.
CONCLUSION 3: On average, there is substantially less instructional time devoted to science and engineering compared to English language arts and mathematics. The evidence is not clear about the most effective ways to structure the frequency and duration of science (or engineering) instructional time in preschool through elementary grades.
CONCLUSION 4: Science and engineering instructional policies, standards, and teaching practices from preschool to elementary grades lack alignment and coherence. Research and curricular design efforts that focus on the transition from preschool to elementary school, in science and engineering, are needed.
CONCLUSION 5: There is limited research on how children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences engage in and experience science and engineering learning in preschool through elementary grades and forms of support that might be helpful. Further, children receiving academic supports often have been excluded or pulled out from key science and engineering learning experiences, limiting not just the research base but children’s opportunities to learn.
Supporting Children’s Learning, Engagement, and Proficiency in Science and Engineering
From infancy, children can engage in everyday practices that form the foundations of scientific and engineering practice—they explore, discover, and investigate the world and develop explanations; construct representations; scope problems and develop and refine solutions; communicate their reasoning and learn from others; and consider actions based on fairness, impact, or justice. These can be developed into disciplinary practices with support, instruction, and guidance.
As children enter schools, they bring with them important prior experiences, reasoning strategies, funds of knowledge drawn from their families and communities, multiple ways of knowing about the world, and a broad range of communicative repertoires to the learning experiences. These are particularly important to value in historically marginalized learners in science and engineering, which the committee recognizes as including Black, Brown, and Indigenous children and other children of color; children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences; emergent multilingual learners; and children marginalized on the basis of gender.
Chapter 3 emphasizes four big ideas for conceptualizing preschool through elementary science and engineering learning: that learning is a social and cultural process, that learning in science and engineering is a process of identity formation, that science and engineering learning occurs across contexts, and that learning science and engineering is non-neutral—that is, what is learned, how it is learned, and what counts as competence in learning is shaped by the values, practices, norms, and opportunities in a given setting. One key context, for children, is family, broadly defined; here, learners begin to develop their knowledge and cultural frames that they will use to organize their understanding of the world and of themselves as learners. Furthermore, children’s play, from infancy through elementary school and beyond, affords important opportunities for authentic engagement in science and engineering—authentic both to children’s lives and to the disciplines.
Chapter 4 builds upon these ideas to describe how children have, demonstrate, and build proficiencies with investigation and design, and that their opportunities to learn can resonate meaningfully with their everyday lives. To become robust scientific thinkers, as envisioned in the Framework, children need frequent opportunities to engage in high-quality science and engineering activities, supported by adults and other children. Because children have proficiencies with investigation and design, educators can develop learning environments that support the demonstration and further development of those proficiencies.
Chapter 5 highlights how learning environments can emphasize caring and respect, meaningful and rich contexts for investigation and design, iterative refinement of ideas and sensemaking, and meaningful assessment. Teachers’ use of instructional practices aimed at facilitating children’s engagement in investigation and design helps to nurture these environments. Moreover, engaging in science and engineering is a social endeavor—one where children can practice important collaboration skills that can support social-emotional development and foster adaptive approaches to learning.
CONCLUSION 6: Science and engineering learning experiences provide unique opportunities for children to identify as people who do and value science and engineering along with their other identities (e.g., racial, ethnic, linguistic, learning [dis]ability, and gender). When children are provided opportunities to explore questions that matter to them and are recognized as knowledge producers and problem solvers, increases in motivation and disciplinary affiliation are observed.
CONCLUSION 7: The broadly defined family context is a child’s primary learning community; therefore, families are essential partners in the learning of science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades.
CONCLUSION 8: The development and expression of children’s proficiencies in science and engineering is related to their knowledge, experiences, their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and the characteristics of the instructional environment and pedagogical approaches. Their engagement in science and engineering looks different across preschool through fifth grade.
CONCLUSION 9: Across the many contexts in which children engage in science and engineering activity, children’s development of ideas and practices is supported by their own intuitive and imaginative ways of investigating and designing as well as by long-term, sustained experiences, rich settings and materials (including use of age-appropriate technologies), and engagement with peers and knowledgeable others.
CONCLUSION 10: Children can share, use, connect, and develop their understanding of big conceptual ideas in science and engineering when instruction (1) is anchored in design problems and phenomena that are conceptually rich, accessible, and meaningful to children and (2) provides supports for children to iteratively refine their explanations and solutions, making progress on questions and problems they have identified.
CONCLUSION 11: Science and engineering learning are social endeavors. Instructional and curricular supports are needed to promote relationships, collective meaning-making, and discourse across children’s development and learning contexts.
CONCLUSION 12: When teachers of science and engineering are able to elicit, notice, value, and build on the many ideas, experiences, and communicative resources that children bring to the classroom, they can organize connections between children’s existing knowledge and curiosity and the environment around them, supporting children to continue to make sense of the natural and designed world.
CONCLUSION 13: A robust formative assessment approach for preschool through elementary school provides appropriate supports for children to show their understanding and skill, includes ways for children to show their understanding in multiple modalities, and specifies a way of making inferences about children’s understanding.
Curriculum and Content Integration
Science and engineering can be integrated with other subject areas, such as language arts, mathematics, and computational thinking. As discussed in Chapter 6, integration, if done well, can effectively add time to the day
for science and engineering. It can build meaningful bridges across content areas, eliminating the silos that are less reflective of how scientists and engineers work. Orienting instruction toward rich phenomena and design problems provides opportunities to motivate, use, and develop practices and ideas in other content domains. In addition, research suggests that curricula that intentionally integrate science and literacy can increase children’s time on science without decreasing children’s development of reading and writing skills and that some literacy and mathematical skills and understanding are enhanced by connections to science and engineering. However, superficial integration can limit children’s engagement in authentic disciplinary practices (in any discipline).
As described in Chapter 7, preschool and elementary teachers benefit from access to high-quality curriculum materials. The committee frames high-quality curriculum materials as grounded in investigation and design, coherent (i.e., they build toward big ideas sensibly and connect across ideas and activity), flexible and adaptable, equitable and responsive, and building toward the vision of the Framework; further, high-quality curriculum materials have evidence supporting their effectiveness. These materials, rather than providing a script for teachers to follow step by step, support teachers in being responsive to children’s thinking and ideas. Using high-quality curriculum materials selected by districts and states provides an important starting point for instruction, and teachers make adaptations to even high-quality materials. Often, teachers make changes due to concerns about time, resources, and their perceptions of children’s needs. These adaptations should be in keeping with the developers’ vision of the materials and grounded in the teacher’s priorities, principles, and context. Teachers also benefit from having adequate physical and digital resources, including access to technology that would allow for examination of phenomena that occur on scales too large, small, slow, or fast to be directly viewed; however, these critical physical and digital resources are not always available for teachers.
CONCLUSION 14: High-quality instruction in preschool through elementary science and engineering requires curriculum materials that build toward the vision of the Framework; are grounded in investigation and design; are coherent, flexible, adaptable, equitable, responsive; and have evidence supporting their effectiveness. It is unreasonable to expect preschool through elementary teachers to develop such materials independently.
CONCLUSION 15: Educators’ use and adaptation of science and engineering curriculum materials is influenced by their knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes about the disciplines, teaching science and engineering, and learners; by the characteristics of the materials themselves; and by the school and classroom contexts in which the materials are being used.
CONCLUSION 16: Integrating science and engineering with each other and with other content areas in preschool through elementary classrooms has the potential to enhance connections between subjects and effectively increase the amount of instructional time for science and engineering instruction. Such integration can benefit all domains if the design (a) respects the unique content and disciplinary practices of all domains, (b) leverages meaningful and mutually supportive connections among the subject areas, and (c) is developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate.
Chapter 8 describes the enormous role preschool through elementary educators play in fostering children’s learning of science and engineering, alongside their many other responsibilities in supporting children’s growth. Preschool through elementary school teachers typically teach all subject areas, including all areas of science and engineering. The chapter recognizes that the elementary teacher workforce of the United States overwhelmingly comprises white women and that they typically have limited preparation in science and engineering. These teachers bring many assets to the work, including care for children, capacity in building relationships with children and families, and inquisitiveness about the world. To build on those assets to get to the vision of science and engineering teaching described in this report, teachers need a constellation of supports across their preservice and professional career. These supports for working toward this vision of science and engineering teaching, particularly with regard to working toward equity and justice, must be framed as part and parcel of the everyday work of classrooms, rather than extraordinary or tacked on as extras for those who are interested.
Preservice teacher education for early childhood and elementary teachers includes science content coursework (whether taught in schools or education or in science departments), science methods courses, and field experiences. Each of these can contribute to the development of preservice teachers’ beliefs, identities, knowledge, and practice with regard to teaching science and engineering and can enable teachers to build on the assets, experiences, and curiosity of children. Coherence across the initial teacher education system—for example, across science content courses, science methods courses, and field experiences—is key, and attention to quality within each element is important as well (e.g., ensuring that science content courses for preservice elementary teachers teach science in ways that are consistent with the vision of the Framework). Professional learning experiences for teachers include a myriad of experiences, including professional learning communities, professional learning sessions connected to curriculum materials, and partnership with science specialists and coaches, among others. The extended consensus model for professional learning names
multiple key characteristics of these experiences, such as bringing together content and pedagogy and working on targeted teaching strategies—all of which prepare teachers to explore the connections among canonical science and engineering knowledge, science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and the lived worlds and experiences of their learners.
CONCLUSION 17: Preschool through elementary school teachers need multiple kinds of supports to provide effective, engaging science and engineering learning opportunities to children. Teachers benefit from having strong teacher preparation, curriculum materials, physical and digital resources, coherent professional learning opportunities, and supportive school leadership. These supports provide opportunities to expand on teachers’ strengths.
CONCLUSION 18: The demographics of the preschool and elementary teacher workforce are starkly different from the demographics of the children being taught. This discrepancy means that there are often cultural mismatches between teachers and the children in their classrooms. These can make salient any differences in teachers’ and children’s relationships to science and engineering and can be reflected in instruction.
CONCLUSION 19: Teachers need support in enacting science and engineering instruction that is responsive to and supportive of the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the children in their classrooms. To address this need, a growing body of research highlights the importance of diversifying the teacher educator workforce, placing preservice teachers in mentored and supportive field placements that involve children from a range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and using sustained professional learning experiences synergistically with educative curriculum materials.
CONCLUSION 20: Preservice early childhood and elementary teachers demonstrate positive shifts in their beliefs, knowledge, and practice related to science and engineering teaching when they have opportunities to engage in science and engineering practices themselves and have opportunities to support children in engaging in these practices.
CONCLUSION 21: Professional learning experiences that engage preschool through elementary teachers in (a) collaboratively analyzing practice and children’s thinking, (b) making connections among professional learning opportunities such as educative curriculum materials and workshops to their classrooms, (c) engaging in instructional co-design, and (d) working with supportive coaches or facilitators all support the development of these teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and practice.
District and School Leadership
Chapter 9 shows that organizational culture, policy and management, and educator capability interact to shape instructional reform efforts in school districts. These three dimensions are distinct but related, and, together, they allow analysis of local leadership practices that enable equitable preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction that builds toward the vision of the Framework. School and district leaders play an important role in providing advice and information for teachers, particularly in the area of science education. Moreover, these leaders set policy and management structures that impact preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction, including structures around instructional time, resources, and staffing. One key dimension of staffing structures is the use of science specialists, or, more generally, organizational approaches such as departmentalization or team teaching. Lastly, professional learning experiences that align across the levels of district, school, and teacher leaders can shape principals’ supervision of teachers and thus teachers’ opportunities to learn. Partnerships with science and engineering organizations and universities can play an important role in supporting such professional learning opportunities.
CONCLUSION 22: When preschool and elementary school and district leaders emphasize the importance of science and engineering education and foster shared responsibility for science and engineering instruction among teachers, science and engineering instruction is included as a strong part of the curriculum. These leaders also allocate time and resources and provide professional learning opportunities for teachers to develop expertise around science and engineering instruction.
CONCLUSION 23: Although specialists can provide preschool and elementary science and engineering instruction when it may not otherwise be available, specialist positions appear to have the greatest impact when school and district administrators and other leaders are involved in science education and the overall district and school culture places value on science and provides resources to support it.
A prevailing issue emphasized by this committee is the lack of attention to science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades. It is imperative that all children receive opportunities to engage with science and engineering that builds toward the vision of the Framework. Toward that goal, the committee recognizes that a shift toward equity and justice in
science and engineering education is needed and requires systemic change. Such systemic change involves a wide range of actors at all levels (schools of education and other higher education units supporting teacher education, professional learning opportunity providers, curriculum developers, funding agencies, states and districts, schools) to make a commitment to support the development of all educators’ and leaders’ knowledge, capabilities, and capacities for science and engineering teaching that works toward equity and justice.
Analyses at the end of the chapters of the report explore each chapter’s focus in light of the four approaches to equity named in Chapter 1. These analyses suggest that, overall, there has been substantial effort made in the first two approaches, some significant pockets of progress in the third, and relatively little regarding the fourth. Across the educational endeavor as a whole, all four approaches are necessary to fully and genuinely work toward disrupting systemic oppression, and yet, as noted above, incremental and individual steps can work in concert with bolder actions and with broader systemic change.
Based upon the committee’s conclusions and this vision to enhance children’s opportunities and move toward equity and justice, the following recommendations (organized around the same themes used for the Conclusions) are intended to be steps to meeting this objective. Because of the emerging scholarship in the work on equity and justice, the recommendations working specifically toward this are based on inferences from the existing evidence. A section of the research agenda that follows focuses on how this literature base can and should be further bolstered.
Prioritizing Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades
RECOMMENDATION 1: State policy makers should establish policies that ensure science and engineering are comprehensively, frequently, and consistently taught in all preschool through elementary settings. The policies should also ensure that children are not being pulled out of science and engineering instruction for remediation in other subjects.
RECOMMENDATION 2: District and school leaders in elementary and preschool settings should examine the amount of time and resources allocated to science and engineering instruction and then (a) develop schedules that allow a comprehensive, frequent, and consistent focus on science and engineering, (b) create coherence from preschool through elementary, and (c) allocate the necessary resources (fiscal,
material, and human) to support equitable science and engineering learning opportunities.
RECOMMENDATION 3: Preschool and elementary school leaders should evaluate the characteristics of classroom instruction, the qualifications of teachers hired and whether the hiring practices serve to promote educator diversity, and the professional learning opportunities offered to teachers so that adjustments can be made as needed to support and enhance teachers’ capacities for teaching science and engineering well.
RECOMMENDATION 4: State leaders, district leaders, and researchers should work together to build connections across preschool and elementary school and to conduct research to investigate how alignment and coherence across preschool through elementary supports children’s learning of science and engineering.
Supporting Children’s Learning, Engagement, and Proficiency in Science and Engineering
RECOMMENDATION 5: To draw on and further develop children’s science and engineering proficiencies and identities, teachers should arrange their instruction around interesting and relevant phenomena and design problems that leverage children’s natural curiosity and give children opportunities for decision making, sensemaking, and problem solving.
RECOMMENDATION 6: Teachers should enact science and engineering learning experiences that establish norms for a caring, collective culture and position children as active thinkers and doers while also providing opportunities to support collaboration and collective thinking.
RECOMMENDATION 7: Teachers should include formative assessment processes that gather multiple forms of evidence at multiple timepoints, with the goal of informing instruction.
RECOMMENDATION 8: Teachers should seek out opportunities to continue to build their expertise in working toward equity and justice in their science and engineering teaching.
RECOMMENDATION 9: Preschool and elementary school leaders and teachers should engage and collaborate with families and local
community leaders to mutually support children’s opportunities for engaging in science and engineering. Such collaboration allows for leaders and teachers to design learning experiences that are meaningful and relevant to children and helps families to better support their children’s learning outside of the school.
Curriculum and Content Integration
RECOMMENDATION 10: Curriculum developers should work in partnership with researchers, teachers, school or district leaders, and families and community leaders to develop preschool through elementary science and engineering curriculum materials that are coherent and equitable, that build toward the vision of the Framework, and that
- provide opportunities for children’s sensemaking around investigation and design;
- build on children’s interests and repertoires of practice;
- provide educative supports for teachers;
- provide opportunities for teachers to make productive adaptations to meet contextual needs;
- provide supports for teachers to make meaningful connections to communities and families;
- explore integrating science and engineering with other domains in ways that benefit children’s learning and use instructional time effectively;
- are manageable for use in preschool and elementary settings;
- align preschool and elementary instruction; and
- show evidence of effectiveness.
RECOMMENDATION 11: State and district leaders should rely on a robust evidence-based review, selection, and implementation process when making decisions about preschool through elementary curricular programs to adopt to ensure that the science and engineering units build toward the vision of the Framework and are grounded in investigation and design, coherent, flexible, adaptable, and equitable.
RECOMMENDATION 12: State and district leaders should provide teachers with sustained professional learning opportunities for using and adapting curriculum materials, and should ensure that they have adequate access to materials, equipment, and other physical and digital resources needed for children to engage in investigation and design.
RECOMMENDATION 13: As materials become available, state and district leaders should ensure that every school has the curriculum materials and instructional resources needed for engaging in science and engineering teaching that works toward equity and justice.
RECOMMENDATION 14: Teacher educators (in and outside of schools of education), facilitators of professional learning experiences, and school and district leaders should
- help preschool through elementary teachers to recognize the importance and value of teaching science and engineering;
- understand and address the needs and goals of classroom teachers;
- support teachers in connecting their professional learning with their classroom practice;
- foreground authentic and equitable science and engineering content and disciplinary practice;
- allow for meaningful integration of science and/or engineering with other subjects; and
- support teachers’ effective use and adaptation of science and engineering curriculum materials.
RECOMMENDATION 15: Designers and facilitators of professional learning opportunities should ensure that sustained opportunities to work on science and engineering teaching that works toward equity and justice, in conjunction with supportive curriculum materials, are offered. These experiences should support teachers in developing the ability to recognize and value their learners’ conceptual, linguistic, and cultural resources, such as funds of knowledge stemming from their families and communities and their sensemaking repertoires.
RECOMMENDATION 16: Schools of education should provide professional learning opportunities for science teacher education faculty on how to work toward equity and justice in teacher education.
RECOMMENDATION 17: Federal agencies should reassess how funds are allocated for research and development efforts to enhance teaching and learning of science and engineering within preschool through elementary classrooms and prioritize efforts that
- diversify the preschool through elementary teacher workforce;
- recognize the unique character of preschool through elementary teachers and teaching;
- develop teachers as leaders;
- support research and development that works across content areas to support teacher educators, teachers, and children in making meaningful connections; and
- elevate the study of equitable curricular resources and initial and ongoing teacher professional learning experiences that support teachers in working toward equity and justice in preschool and elementary science and engineering.
District and School Leadership
RECOMMENDATION 18: District leaders should provide professional learning opportunities for principals, center directors, and other school leaders to enhance leaders’ capacity for providing instructional leadership for science and engineering. These professional learning opportunities should focus on science and engineering practices and support leaders in seeing multiple ways science and engineering are valuable for children.
Considerable research exists that shows the potential of children in learning science and engineering. At the same time, much remains to be learned. The unique character of science and engineering teaching and learning in preschool through elementary grades shapes what research is able to be conducted. Those factors cause challenges for conducting research in this arena. Some of these include
- Issues stemming from the rarity of teaching of science and engineering: As has been established throughout this report, science and engineering are taught infrequently in many elementary schools and preschool settings. Furthermore, when these subjects are taught, they are scheduled idiosyncratically. This means it can be difficult for any research focused on science and engineering in these age bands to occur, and in particular, it makes getting commitments for conducting large-scale in-classroom research difficult and the logistics of doing so quite challenging.
- Issues of systemic exclusion: The research base undergirding much of the scholarship on science and engineering education has systematically excluded groups of learners (e.g., children of color,
- children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences). Thus, research on instruction is grounded in incomplete and inadequate representations of children’s repertoires of practice, and ideas about how and why children learn science and engineering must be expanded.
- Issues of assessment and measurement: Because of the age of the children of focus in the charge, it can be challenging for scholars to design effective assessments. Interpreting data generated with young children—for example, young children’s talk, written artifacts, and/or embodiments—can be difficult as well. The nature of children’s talk is often discursive and rambling, and their written literacy is, of course, developing. In part due to these challenges, it can be difficult to develop reliable measures to make valid inferences about young children’s thinking. Thus, it is worth considering how teachers use formative assessment to support children in their learning and summative assessment to determine what children have learned.
- Issues of informal learning: Informal learning offers challenges in terms of looking at children within family groups or classes, rather than as individuals.
- Issues of funding: Funding has been unevenly distributed in terms of the kinds of questions that have been supported for exploration as well as the scholars who receive funding (i.e., scholars of color receiving funding less often)—leading to limited evidence in some areas.
Next, the section turns to the key areas of focus for future research. The committee orients these recommendations around key foci or themes across this report, including issues of equity and justice; engaging families and communities; curriculum, instruction, learning environments, and assessment; teacher education and professional learning; systems and policies; and approaches to research. These areas are overlapping and interconnected.
Working Toward Equity and Justice
The committee urges that research be conducted to understand and support how learning science and engineering can contribute to equity and justice.
Areas of focus here include first and foremost, science and engineering pedagogies, curriculum, and teacher education and professional learning for preschool through elementary school that emphasize equity and justice, including seeing science and engineering as a part of justice movements. This includes connections to short- and long-term learning of educators and
children, the development of identities in science and engineering, and developing ideas about the value of science and engineering in children’s lives and communities. For instance, what constitutes relevance, or consequential learning, in preschool through elementary school? What can preschool through elementary children do toward community transformation through science and engineering?
Scholarship on antiracist pedagogy is crucial to examine as researchers continue to work toward justice in preschool through elementary science and engineering. Given that prioritizing antiracism necessitates a broader perspective on the intent of learning experiences, what does an expansive set of learning goals or outcomes look like for science and engineering at this age? Focusing on teachers, this includes the development and testing of learning trajectories in becoming oriented to antiracist science and engineering approaches, and the development of tools and frameworks to support teaching at the intersection of preschool through elementary science, engineering, and antiracism. It also includes the exploration of design principles for antiracist work and identifying focal areas that represent likely “hotspots” for curriculum and instruction that works toward justice (e.g., the environment and natural world, health and the human body).
A second key focus here would be exploring in more depth science and engineering learning with particular groups of children: Black and Brown children, Indigenous children, children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences, emergent multilingual learners, girls, and others who are often marginalized from science and engineering as professions and as school subject areas. This research must recognize that children’s experiences are influenced by their intersecting identities and must not essentialize or assume homogeneity within groups. As one example of this area of need, the committee found little literature documenting the removal of children from science class for children to receive special education or English as a Second Language services—yet most committee members had anecdotal experiences of that happening time and again. Black and Brown children, in particular, are often excluded from science and engineering class due to supposed behavioral infractions. To help inform design efforts that would work toward equity and justice, further scholarship should explore (a) how to effectively support children who belong to these groups in foundational science and engineering opportunities to learn, (b) their experiences when provided those opportunities, and (c) how preschool through elementary science and engineering can provide opportunities to work to dismantle white supremacy, even in majority white spaces.
A third key focus involves exploring science and engineering learning with diverse groups of children. Accounting for the heterogeneity within any given classroom or group is important for effecting change in instruction. This may entail studies in settings with children who come from a
range of cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds and/or are different ages. For example, how can classroom teachers best support making cultural connections in their science or engineering instruction when children in the classroom represent multiple, perhaps quite different, cultural backgrounds?
Engaging Families and Communities
The committee urges that research focus additional attention on understanding families’ and communities’ contributions to the teaching and learning of science and engineering with children.
Specifically, the committee recommends that research focus on how families negotiate and navigate among their local ways of knowing, informal engagements with science and engineering, and more formal school-based ways of knowing science and engineering. Research must also focus on the complementary side—that is, how schools and districts elicit, acknowledge, and leverage families’ ways of knowing and connect these to more formal school-based ways of knowing.
A second area of focus is to explore how partnerships across schools or districts, community-serving learning organizations like museums, and families and community members can promote equity- and justice-oriented science and engineering instruction with preschool through elementary aged children. What do models for such partnerships look like? What policy contexts are necessary to build and sustain these partnerships? How do the unique material and historical conditions in different communities shape their opportunities to build and sustain partnerships in locally distinct and sustainable ways? What kinds of effects can such partnerships have on learners and on communities, and what is the evidence of those effects?
Curriculum, Instruction, Learning Environments, and Assessment
The committee urges that research be conducted to understand and support curriculum, instruction, and assessment that supports children in engaging meaningfully in investigation and design.
One area of focus here should be further work on the forms of activity named in Chapter 4, and on what they look like when they are taken up by a range of children: across ages, backgrounds, and contexts. Beyond looking at this cross-sectionally, the field needs research that looks longitudinally at how these forms of activity are taken up and evolve over time as children move from grade to grade. This work would help to inform instructional design: What helps children to engage in these forms of activity, across grade levels? This would also contribute to bolstering the literature base supporting the learning progressions that are presented in the Framework and would support the possible extension of the Framework
to preschool in a developmentally appropriate way that maintains a child-centered focus on play.
Another area of focus should zoom in on the youngest learners, specifically. What do these forms of activity look like for preschool children? What is the intersection among science and engineering and play? Furthermore, the field needs research that articulates science and engineering learning goals for preschool. What would learning progressions around the science and engineering practices, such as those in the Framework, look like if they started in preschool? How can efforts in preschool support later efforts to engage children in science and engineering?
An additional area of focus should be on children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences and how they learn science and engineering. The committee found relatively little work here. What are the experiences of children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences in preschool and elementary science and engineering, and how can instruction in and learning environments for these subject areas support them well? What does effective “differentiation” look like for the kind of three-dimensional, phenomenon- or design challenge-based learning emphasized in the Framework? Related also to the next topic of teacher education and professional learning, what kinds of opportunities to learn are important for preschool through elementary teachers of science and engineering, in learning to teach children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences?
Another area of focus should be on integration. This report has highlighted the potential for integration across domains (including science and engineering, along with English language arts [ELA], mathematics, computational thinking, social studies, social-emotional learning, and others). Yet relatively little research exists to guide this kind of curricular and instructional work, particularly outside of mathematics and ELA. How can teachers be supported in learning to do this kind of integration? What should curriculum development look like for authentic and meaningful integration? What might it look like with social studies, in particular—another often-marginalized subject? What types of combinations and what degree of combination maximizes the advantages and minimizes the challenges? How do different models of integration work—who do they benefit, and under what conditions are they beneficial, equitable, and sustainable? How do these models relate to how time is spent in preschool and elementary classrooms? Furthermore, more research is needed on several of the potential pitfalls named for integration with mathematics and ELA. Research on the integration of mathematics, science, and engineering yields variable effect sizes. Research and development efforts often describe connections across content areas but do not address precisely how and why those connections function educationally.
A fourth area of focus should be on the design of curriculum materials that support preschool through elementary science and engineering. Al-
though the research base seems to show how curriculum materials are supportive of teachers, it is less clear about the effects on learning and identity development for children. Given the committee’s definition of high-quality curriculum materials, what specific features are centrally important for this age group? What learning goals, scaffolding, and instructional designs are most appropriate for the different grade bands? How can curriculum materials support the development of crosscutting concepts across units and across years? How, and under what conditions, can the use of technology facilitate science and engineering learning? What do educative curriculum materials look like that support teachers in equity- and justice-oriented pedagogy in science and engineering?
An additional area of focus should be on the incorporation of engineering in preschool through elementary settings. Too little research has focused here, and the inclusion of engineering in younger grades is quite new. More work is needed to guide design of curriculum materials and instructional practice for engineering education at these ages. How do young children take up the disciplinary practices of engineering? How do they develop identities as people who do engineering? What unique opportunities does engineering offer, and how can curriculum designers take advantage of those opportunities?
A final area of focus should be assessment. What does three-dimensional assessment in science and engineering look like with young children? How can different forms of assessment be constructed and used for effective teaching and learning in preschool through elementary school? What does assessment for preschool through elementary science and engineering look like when it privileges not just three-dimensional learning and the vision of the Framework, but also a justice-oriented stance? What does accountability look like in preschool through elementary science and engineering, and what are the implications for instruction?
The kind of design work alluded to here takes time. Teachers must take risks to engage in this work with children. Researchers and teachers, working together, must learn from children and engage in iterative redesign.
Teacher Education and Professional Learning
The committee urges that research be conducted to better understand how teachers learn to engage in high-quality, equitable science and engineering instruction with young learners.
A key assumption of the committee is that the field needs to move beyond research that emphasizes preschool through elementary teachers’ supposed deficits vis-à-vis science and engineering teaching, and toward research that explores how to leverage teachers’ strengths and how to support them in developing their instructional practice. For example, assumptions
are typically made about elementary teachers’ need for very wide and very deep subject-matter knowledge in science; to what extent are those assumptions well founded? How does teachers’ inquisitiveness about children’s thinking play into their practice? Research should explore connections among teachers’ characteristics (e.g., knowledge, beliefs, identity), their relational work and instructional practice, and their efficacy in supporting children’s learning and identity development; what teacher characteristics and practices are most central in supporting children’s growth in science and engineering?
A second area of focus should include better understanding the synergies among the relational work and the disciplinary work in science and engineering that preschool through elementary teachers do on a daily basis. How do teachers make connections between children and investigation and design, and how should teacher educators support them in learning to make those connections?
There is little research that connects equity- and justice-oriented teaching with preschool through elementary science and engineering teaching. In addition, there is little research in teacher education that tracks teachers’ justice-oriented practice; most of this scholarship focuses on teachers’ beliefs. Thus, another area of focus should be on these teachers’ enacted practice, particularly with regard to using pedagogies that work toward equity and justice for preschool through elementary science and engineering. More generally, research should focus on how teacher education experiences (including field experiences as well as science methods courses and other program structures) can shift preservice teachers’ understanding of systemic oppression and educational injustices, and help develop their knowledge and practice around pedagogies for science and engineering that work toward equity and justice. What are the roles of tools or frameworks in supporting this work? How do novice teachers internalize and use such tools and frameworks over time?
Scholarship needs to further explore a range of dimensions of preservice teacher education and ongoing professional learning for in-service teachers. This work needs to take seriously the nature of early childhood and elementary teaching. For example, how do teachers conceptualize the science and engineering practices, and how do these conceptions connect to how they conceptualize their teaching of the disciplinary practices of other subjects? How can teachers be supported in integrating science and engineering with other subjects, through initial teacher education, ongoing professional learning, and/or educative curriculum materials? How does using innovative, high-quality curriculum materials shape teachers’ readiness for and ability to plan for science and engineering instruction that foregrounds the proficiencies associated with investigation and design? What is the role of coherence in preservice teacher education and what dimensions of coher-
ence matter the most? What should teacher education (including methods courses, content courses, and field experiences) look like for preservice teachers of color, and how can whiteness be decentered in contexts where many of the participants are white? Structurally, what does the preparation in science and engineering look like in initial teacher education compared to ELA and mathematics (e.g., how many methods classes, content classes, field experiences), and what is the effect of those structural differences in early childhood and elementary teachers’ science and engineering teaching? How can early childhood teachers, in particular, be supported in learning to teach science and engineering, and what should preparation for teaching preschool through third grade or preschool through fourth grade look like? What are the effects of efforts (e.g., of tribal colleges and universities to prepare early childhood teachers, or of district partnerships to bring in Latinx elementary teachers) to diversify the teacher workforce and strengthen the teacher of color pipeline? The committee also found no recent work on induction support for early career preschool through elementary teachers of science and engineering, and so this, too, is an area for focus.
Finally, the committee found that most scholarship in science teacher education focuses on preschool through elementary teachers’ knowledge or beliefs, whereas little work focused on teachers’ actual enacted practice. Yet it is enactment that directly shapes children’s opportunities to learn in science and engineering. More research, in both preservice teacher education and in-service professional learning, should focus on supporting and characterizing teachers’ practice and how it develops over time. Furthermore, research that connects the dots from teachers’ professional learning experiences (e.g., coaching) to their instructional practices to children’s learning and identity development is needed.
Systems, Policies, and Leadership
The committee urges that research be conducted to better understand the roles of systems and policies in supporting the teaching and learning of science and engineering in preschool through elementary school.
The committee highlights four main areas of focus here. The first recognizes the interconnections among different elements and levels of the system, and the need to understand those interconnections more fully. There is a need to better understand the connections between the work occurring at the system (e.g., district or state) level and at the classroom level, and to articulate how system-level policies and practices shape science and engineering instruction in preschool through elementary classrooms. For instance, research should explore how large-scale assessments are used in comparison to their intended use. How do these assessments impact
teacher evaluation? How do state and district policies impact—positively or negatively—children’s access to science and engineering instruction? Furthermore, relatively little work has been done exploring the role of partnerships that reflect children’s multiple cultural identities. Research should characterize the workings of multi-institutional community and school partnerships, exploring questions about how multiple actors in a system can engage in iterative design and learning.
A related area of focus is improvement efforts. Building capacity for early childhood and elementary teachers to be able to engage in the work of teaching science and engineering requires systemic efforts, as does putting factors in place that support that work (including funding, time, curricular resources, instructional resources, and facilities). Relatively little research has focused on teacher networks for preschool or elementary science or engineering—right now a largely untested, low priority in schools, yet one that has so much promise for children’s growth and development in becoming agentic change makers in their communities—seems crucial. Similarly, there is relatively little research on partnerships contributing to transformational leadership, including research-practice partnerships. At the systems level, exploring what multitiered systems of support could look like for these subjects would help districts in designing for capacity building.
A third important area of focus in the systems and policy area focuses on time and the related issue of the classroom schedule. Instructional time limits how much science (and even more so, how much engineering) is taught in elementary schools and how that time is scheduled shapes what can be done. Yet the committee found relatively little classroom-level research illustrating how instructional time is being used for these subjects. Questions around time, then, become central in considering how the teaching and learning of science and engineering can be enhanced in the preschool through elementary grades. For example, what scheduling practices in elementary schools support investigation and design in the preschool or elementary classroom? What are the comparative effects—on teacher and child experiences and outcomes—of scheduling blocks of time daily or weekly for individual disciplines, versus scheduling times for integration of domains (and providing curricular supports for that integration)? What are the effects on multiple disciplines—for example, if the time spent on science increases in concert with a decrease in time for ELA, do learner outcomes in ELA change?
A final important area of focus is to learn more about the effects of systems, policies, and leadership with regard to the teaching and learning of science and engineering in preschool, specifically. Most of the systems-level work has taken place in K–12 contexts and thus excludes the preschool setting. Research that looks at connections between preschool systems and K–5 systems, coupled with longitudinal studies, is needed.
Approaches to Research
The committee urges that research be conducted to better understand the intricacies of how putting children, investigation, and design at the center of consideration can shape children’s learning and development and how a range of factors facilitate that work. This leads to the need to develop improved research methodologies to be able to conduct this work.
First, investment must be made in supporting scholars in learning to engage in and sustaining the research necessary. This could take the form of postdoctoral fellow programs, multi-institutional centers, summer research methodology workshops, or virtual training programs. Further, institutions must provide support for learning and collaboration. Such support can take the form of (1) recognizing the time it takes for researchers to develop collaborative and trusting relationships with partners and (2) providing support for collaborations with community organizations, school districts, and interdisciplinary groups of researchers. A related point is to broaden the field’s viewpoints of relevant research methodologies or of applications of methodologies to focus on children and equity and justice, leveraging a full range of approaches, including quasi-experimental comparison studies, qualitative case studies, randomized controlled trials, ethnographic and field studies, and large-scale surveys. These synergistic efforts could center on some of the issues raised at the start of this section. How can researchers interpret very young children’s talk and written artifacts related to science and engineering? How can researchers interpret children’s embodiment of ideas? What kinds of partnership strategies can foster wide-scale research with enough schools or districts for large-scale efficacy studies? How can scholars learn to “hear the science” in Indigenous, Black, or Brown children’s utterances and recognize the cultural connections? How can scholars ethically and effectively study diverse populations in free choice environments, or work meaningfully in communities, around science and engineering? How can scholars look at efficacy in new ways, or look at fidelity and adaptation in new ways? For example, how best can scholars study an intervention in different locations and make sense of the local adaptations teachers or other educators make?
Second, the committee noted that many of the pressing needs for research require the development of partnerships, where groups of researchers, educators, families, and community members collaborate. Methodologies such as design-based implementation research, improvement science, networked-improvement communities, and social design experiments show potential, though have not been employed much within science and engineering at preschool through elementary. How can these methodologies or others be employed in studying preschool through elementary science and engineering? What kinds of partnership strategies can foster wide-scale research with enough schools or districts for large-scale efficacy studies?
How can research-practice partnerships develop and study the instructional materials and related infrastructure that support the kinds of opportunities to learn that this report details?
Third, the committee noted, across the scope of the work of the report, the dearth of longitudinal studies and recommends this as a methodology to prioritize in the coming decade. For example, given what the report has shown about the interaction between children’s competence on the one hand and children’s opportunities for learning on the other, studies could explore questions such as: How do teachers engage in this work over time, and what do they come to value about teaching science and engineering to children? What do preschool through elementary teachers’ learning trajectories look like, for equity- and justice-oriented science and engineering teaching? What are the consequences of sustained opportunities for children’s rich science and engineering engagement, year by year? How do children who experience rich engagement with science and engineering practice in preschool grow in terms of the science or engineering identities, by the time they reach fifth grade? Large scale and long term (preschool through high school), what is the impact of receiving effective, inspiring, and equitable science and engineering instruction over time, on children’s learning, identity development, or engagement in justice-oriented community science and engineering work? Is there a difference between groups of children (e.g., children of color, children who receive special education services, children who do or do not receive free and reduced-price meals) who do or do not receive science and engineering instruction? An additional area to explore is how cross-sequential research, combining shorter-term longitudinal cohorts with overlapping cross-sectional cohorts, could help to address these longitudinal issues in a potentially more cost-effective way.
In summary, this report builds on the assumption that every child has the right to experience the wonder of science and the satisfaction of engineering, shows that children are wholly capable of engaging meaningfully in science and engineering, and illustrates how they can be supported in doing so. Doing this well is urgent in light of the ongoing crises the nation faces—and has been facing throughout its history—around systemic racism, health inequities, and environmental peril. Educators who take children seriously in their endeavors are uniquely positioned to support them in making sense of the natural and designed world and in making the world a more just and equitable place. Recognizing and leveraging children’s and educators’ strengths will help move preschool through elementary science and engineering closer to the vision put forward in this report.
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