From a very young age, children are interested in exploring the world. They eagerly ask questions about their environment and have intuitive and imaginative ways of finding out about it. This curiosity and enthusiasm for learning can set the stage as children enter into formal schooling. In fact, recent transformations in science education, sparked by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s report A Framework for K–12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework; National Research Council [NRC], 2012), call for robust science and engineering learning experiences for children. However, a host of challenges remain as educators work to implement the vision of the Framework in the elementary grades and realize a consistent vision in preschool.
First, research on science and engineering education has focused largely on middle and high school, with less attention to preschool through elementary-age children, as well as less attention to engineering than science. Thus, educators may not know what children’s meaningful engagement in science and engineering could look like. Second, educators focused on enhancing preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction have to navigate multiple demands placed on teachers and administrators, including an emphasis on English language arts (ELA) and mathematics; educators and school leaders who often do not have backgrounds in science and engineering; limited professional learning opportunities; and lack of time, space, and resources.
As a result, many preschool and elementary classrooms provide only limited opportunities to engage in science and engineering learning. This is a concern because foundational science and engineering experiences in
preschool through elementary school are essential for success in later learning. Leveraging their curiosity about the natural and designed world allows children to answer questions and solve problems of interest to them while engaging in authentic science and engineering practices.
Given the importance of early opportunities to engage in science and engineering learning, as well as these complex challenges, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund commissioned the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to examine the research on effective approaches to science and engineering instruction in preschool through fifth grade.1 The committee explored the kinds of learning experiences prior to entering school that help to provide a strong foundation for science and engineering learning; how children’s learning can be supported in schools to include promising instructional approaches and integration of content; the design and use of curriculum and instructional materials; and how to support teachers through professional learning opportunities and policies, practices, and leadership at the national, state, and local levels.
This report was developed during a pivotal moment in history. Systemic racial inequities and injustices that have shaped this country’s path for centuries have increasingly moved into the forefront of the national conversation. These inequities and injustices need to be addressed, in part, through children’s educational experiences. Furthermore, the work on the report took place during a global pandemic. Although the effects of the pandemic on children’s learning of science and engineering are still to be determined, it is clear that they will be substantial, and that due to existing inequities these effects will not be distributed evenly across communities.
For these reasons, the committee focused on equity across the report. The committee uses the term “equity” to address ways—through changing policies and practices—of removing barriers to participation in science and engineering and increasing achievement, representation, and identification, whereas the term “justice” refers to addressing systemic oppressions that cause those barriers, thus seeking fair treatment of all people and supporting opportunities for self-determination and thriving. The committee names four approaches to equity—(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—that reflect a spectrum of ways that educators can work toward equity and justice in preschool and elementary science and engineering.
Educators and leaders at local, state, and district levels can adopt one or more of these approaches to help them move their efforts toward equity and justice, even with young children learning science and engineering. Building toward the vision of the Framework while deepening attention to equity and justice is a significant, but crucial, challenge. The report provides starting points for engaging in this work and points to the gaps in research to fully realize an evidence-based, synthesized approach.
The committee’s core findings are summarized below. The findings cover fundamental insights about children’s learning, how to design instruction and curriculum, supports for educators, and the importance of administrative leadership and policy.
Prioritizing Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades
Starting from infancy, children begin to 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. All of these can be developed into scientific and engineering practice, with support, and leveraged as children come to understand the natural and designed world. However, national survey data have shown that science and engineering instruction is not prioritized in preschool through elementary schools, with engineering receiving the least attention. This lack of priority is exacerbated in under-resourced schools. In particular, science and engineering are often not attended to in preschool through elementary state policies, due in part to high-stakes accountability policies, which emphasize ELA and mathematics. Children are also pulled out from content areas like science and social studies to receive support services. Additionally, there is not clear alignment or coherence of the policies, standards, and teaching practices from preschool through elementary grades for science and engineering. Aligning these systems could support the enhancement of the teaching and learning of science and engineering across preschool through elementary schools.
Supporting Children’s Learning, Engagement, and Proficiency in Science and Engineering
Designing effective, inspiring, and equitable science and engineering education pathways requires attention to the potential that all children bring
with them; the unique identities and strengths of each individual child; and the systemic and contextual influences that shape patterns of difference in children’s experiences of the world. Four big ideas help to conceptualize learning: it (1) is a social and cultural process that (2) involves identity formation, (3) occurs across contexts, and (4) occurs within historical and political contexts. These four big ideas are central to understanding both the core commonalities and the broad variations in how children learn science and engineering in preschool through elementary grades.
Children build proficiencies in science and engineering throughout their childhoods, including through their family relationships and experiences with play. For example, after splashing in puddles outside, preschoolers might come together at a water table to explore and learn core ideas related to flow and motion, as well as crosscutting concepts such as cause and effect (e.g., how pouring from different heights affects the size of a splash) and systems thinking (e.g., how increasing water flow through one portion of the water table relates to water volume available in another portion). They might engage in forms of activity such as making predictions and observations, explaining relationships, and communicating their ideas. Preschoolers might also have conversations about where storm water in their school’s neighborhood goes and the importance of access to clean water.
Adults—including family members, community members, teachers, and many others—play a crucial role in supporting children’s engagement in science and engineering experiences. Across the many contexts of children’s science and engineering activity, children’s development of ideas and practices is supported by long-term, sustained experiences, rich materials and settings, and engagement with peers and knowledgeable others. Teachers’ use of instructional practices aimed at children’s engagement in investigation and design helps to support the enactment of these environments. Teachers and other adults need to be able to notice, name, and build on children’s ideas and experiences to help them continue to make sense of the natural and designed world. Moreover, engaging in science and engineering is a social endeavor—one where children develop relationships and engage in collective meaning-making and scientific and engineering discourse. Learning environments in science and engineering for preschool and elementary ages emphasize caring and respect, meaningful and rich contexts, iterative refinement of ideas and sensemaking, collaboration and collective thinking, meaningful assessment, and work to undo systemic oppression. By developing learning environments that support both development and demonstration of children’s proficiencies, including making connections across contexts of learning, educators help children see their ideas, interests and identities, and practices as meaningful for school science and engineering as well as seeing how science and engineering can be useful in their lives.
Curriculum and Content Integration
Scientists and engineers work on problems that require interdisciplinary approaches to solutions. Children’s work in science and engineering is interdisciplinary in similar ways. Science and engineering can be integrated with other subject areas, such as language arts, mathematics, and computational thinking. Integration, if done well, effectively adds time to the day for science and engineering. It contributes to building meaningful bridges across content areas. Orienting instruction toward rich phenomena and design problems provides opportunities to motivate, use, and develop skills and ideas in other content domains. Instructional designs incorporating integration need to respect the unique content and practices of each domain included, make meaningful connections among the domains, and be developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate.
Preschool through elementary teachers benefit from access to high-quality curriculum materials. Rather than providing a script for teachers to blindly follow, such materials support teachers in being responsive to children’s thinking and ideas. High-quality curriculum materials provide an important starting point for instruction: teachers adapt even high-quality materials to their own teaching context and students. Ideally, these adaptations are in keeping with the developers’ vision of the materials as well as with the teacher’s priorities, principles, and context. How teachers use and adapt curriculum materials depends upon the teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes as well as the characteristics of the curriculum materials and the teaching contexts.
Preschool through elementary school teachers typically teach all subject areas, including all areas of science and engineering. They also support children’s social, emotional, and physical well-being and formally or informally attend to other areas important for children’s growth, such as art and music. While these teachers may not have extensive preparation in (or affinity for) science and engineering, they 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 toward the vision of science and engineering teaching described in this report, teachers benefit from a constellation of supports across their preservice and professional career. Several factors can contribute to the development of teachers’ beliefs, identities, knowledge, and practice with regard to teaching science and engineering. These include preservice teacher education that involves experiences with science and engineering practices and experiences with
supporting children in engaging in those practices, as well as professional learning experiences that involve, for example, collaboratively analyzing teaching practice and children’s thinking. Beyond preservice teacher education and ongoing professional learning opportunities, teachers also benefit from having adequate physical and digital resources, educative curriculum materials, and supportive school leadership. Curricular and physical and digital resources are often in short supply in under-resourced schools, which typically serve larger proportions of minoritized children.
Because the demographics of the preschool through elementary teacher workforce, which includes mainly white women, are different from the demographics of the children being taught, there may be differences between how teachers and learners relate to science and engineering. Furthermore, teachers may need support in being responsive to and supportive of the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the children in their classrooms.
District and School Leadership
Organizational culture, policy and management, and educator capability interact to shape instructional reform efforts in school districts. These three related pieces allow researchers to analyze local leadership practices that enable equitable preschool and elementary science and engineering instruction.
School leaders play an important role in providing guidance for teachers, particularly in the area of science and engineering education. When leaders emphasize the importance of science and engineering and foster shared responsibility for science and engineering instruction, that instruction is strengthened in schools. Moreover, policy and management structures that matter for preschool and elementary science and engineering instruction include structures around instructional time, resources, and staffing. Staffing structures sometimes include the use of science specialists, departmentalization, or team teaching. When leaders are involved in science and engineering education and when there is value placed on science and engineering education in the system, specialists appear to have greater impact, in comparison to when leaders are not involved or when value is not placed on science and engineering. Lastly, professional learning experiences for leaders that align across the levels of district, school, and teacher leaders shape principals’ supervision of teachers and thus teachers’ opportunities to learn. Partnerships with science and engineering organizations and universities contribute to supporting such professional learning opportunities.
Following analysis of the available evidence, the committee reached consensus on a set of conclusions and recommendations. The conclusions and recommendations, as well as future directions for research that attend to
the identified gaps in the current research, are discussed in depth in Chapter 10. The recommendations presented below are grouped and correspond with the themes highlighted in the core findings. Issues related to equity and justice are threaded throughout, illustrating the pervasiveness of these issues.
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 A Framework for K–12 Science Education, 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 A Framework for K–12 Science Education 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.