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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
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1

Introduction

Every child deserves to experience the wonder of science and the satisfaction of engineering. Children, even at very young ages, are deeply curious about the world around them and eager to investigate the many questions they have about their environment. Decades of research suggest that children are capable of learning sophisticated disciplinary concepts and can engage in scientific and engineering practices (National Research Council [NRC], 2007, 2012). Engaging them in learning science and engineering takes advantage of this interest and helps them to answer their own authentic questions and solve real-world problems that are important to them. High-quality instruction builds toward the vision of A Framework for K–12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework; NRC, 2012) and this report unpacks what that instruction can look like, and what can happen when children are supported in meaningful opportunities to learn.

Building a solid foundation in science and engineering in preschool through the elementary grades sets the stage for later successboth by sustaining and enhancing children’s natural enthusiasm for learning about the world around them and by establishing the knowledge and skills they need to approach the more challenging science and engineering topics introduced in later grades. Yet across the United States, children in elementary classrooms receive instruction in science an average of just 20 or so minutes a day, a few days a week, and engineering instruction far less frequently (Banilower et al., 2018). Furthermore, this instructional time for science and engineering is not evenly distributed. Schools with extensive resources, which tend to serve mostly white children, tend to have more science

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

instruction, while schools that are under-resourced, which tend to serve mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous children, tend to have less (Banilower et al., 2018).

These disparities lead to a number of concerns. Most common in the national parlance is concern about the “STEM pipeline,” and Black, Brown, and Indigenous children certainly do deserve access to higher-paying STEM-related jobs. However, access to jobs is not the only goal; it is important that science and engineering be made epistemologically accessible and coherent (with a range of entrance points in terms of ways of knowing) for children of all backgrounds, not just those who come from backgrounds aligned with the white, middle-class perspectives that have typically been privileged in these disciplines. In addition, the converse is also true: science and engineering benefit, as disciplines, from the involvement of participants from a broader range of identities and backgrounds.

Additionally, as the committee writes these words, in 2021, the United States is currently reeling from a global pandemic (which has disproportionately affected communities of color) and bracing itself for ongoing and long-term environmental crises. Supporting young children to deeply understand authentic science and to solve real-world engineering and design problems will support them in becoming informed decision makersperhaps helping to mitigate some of these health and environmental concerns that will continue to be faced in local communities and as a nation.

A final argument for the importance of providing children with a strong foundation in science and engineering is, simply, that each child has a right to experience the wonders of the natural and designed worlds. Children bring joy to their explorations, and they deserve to have that joy nurtured. For each of these reasons, and others, a focus on science and engineering with all young learners in preschool through fifth grade is crucially important.

ABOUT THIS REPORT

Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund, the Board on Science Education of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an expert committee to gather information and explore the range of issues associated with opportunities to engage with science and engineering learning in preschool through the elementary grades (see Box 1-1). The 16-member expert committee included individuals with expertise in early childhood education and development, elementary science and engineering learning and pedagogy, preservice and in-service teacher professional learning, as well as assessment, curriculum materials, and content integration. Committee members also had expertise with respect to educational systems and policies and links to informal settings.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

The committee met six times over a 1-year period in 2020 and 2021. During this time, the committee reviewed the published literature pertaining to its charge and had opportunities to engage with many experts. Evidence was gathered from presentations and a review of the existing literature that included peer-reviewed materials, book chapters, reports, working papers, government documents, white papers and evaluations, editorials, and previous reports by the National Academies. The committee searched for information on the teaching and learning of science and engineering in preschool and elementary grades, with a focus on student engagement in doing science and engineering. In their work, the committee also drew from the broader literature on professional learning, curriculum, assessment, leadership, community connections, education policy, and school reform and improvement efforts. For each of these areas, careful consideration was given to the strength of the evidence (described below) as well as across the various grade bands (preschool, K–2, and 3–5) as appropriate.

Report Scope

The committee discussed the charge in detail at multiple points throughout the consensus process. In early meetings, discussions focused on getting clarity on what was intended by the charge and also identifying areas of potential focus and making decisions about whether they were in or out of scope. As time went on, the discussions became richer and fuller as committee members came to understand one another’s perspectives and develop a shared vision. Through those conversations, the committee made a set of decisions that helped shape both the substance and the scope of the work.

One decision was—to maintain a reasonable scope and based on the charge—the committee would focus attention on the preschool or prekindergarten contexts rather than giving a full treatment to the time period between infancy and preschool. As the committee made this decision, a related conversation about how to describe this setting occurred. In the broader literature, several different terms can be used such as early learning, early childhood, preschool, and prekindergarten. “Early learning” is often used to encompass children from birth to age 8 (third grade); “prekindergarten” is the term often associated with public prekindergarten programs, which often serve children age 5; whereas “preschool” is often associated with programs serving children ages 3–5. Moreover, in states and programs where Head Start funds and state prekindergarten funds are combined to serve children and families to expand reach, preschool is used as a more encompassing term. Given this, the committee has decided to use the word “preschool” to describe this early stage, including prekindergarten. Given the complexity of this landscape, a limitation is that the committee was un-

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

able to do full treatment of the different settings (i.e., public versus private preschools, Head Start programs, prekindergarten) in which children may have opportunities to engage in science and engineering. To further conversations around alignment between preschool and elementary educational systems, the committee has chosen to use the phrase “preschool through elementary” to signal this continuity.

Similarly, fruitful discussions focused on ideas about and language for content integration (Chapter 6), engineering and computational thinking (addressed throughout the report), and assessment (see Chapter 5). For example, the committee grappled with the meanings of terms like integration, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary, as well as content area and domain, and eventually developed a common perspective of how these ideas can inform and enhance science and engineering teaching and learning in preschool through elementary. The committee also recognizes that there have been a number of initiatives pushing for computational thinking to be embedded within K–12 (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2021). To the extent possible, the committee explored how computational thinking is defined in the Framework (NRC, 2012), how it can meaningfully be connected to science and engineering, and at what ages children may engage in it and how (see Chapter 6); the committee felt that it is beyond their scope and expertise to make recommendations beyond those parameters, particularly given the limited research in that area.

Finally, through these discussions of the charge, the committee also identified areas that were important for inclusion in the report, despite not being named explicitly in the charge. Some of these included learning and learning processes (Chapters 3 and 4), the role of standards (Chapter 2 and throughout), and the role of educational leaders and leadership (Chapter 9). In addition, because some children do not have opportunities to attend preschool (or prekindergarten) and because the committee recognizes that families and communities serve as a context for learning science and engineering, the role of families and communities is discussed throughout the report (particularly in Chapter 3).

Study Approach

Over the course of this study, members of the committee benefited from discussion and presentations by the many individuals who participated in the three fact-finding meetings.1 At the first meeting, the committee heard

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1 Links to recordings of the presentations and the public sessions can be found at the project page at https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/enhancing-science-in-prekindergarten-through-fifth-grade.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

a presentation on the state of elementary science education and engaged in a discussion with leading experts on computational thinking.

During the second and third meetings, the committee had several discussions pertaining to the charge, including issues related to equity, content integration, as well as the role of district policies and leadership in elementary education. In particular, at the second meeting, the committee engaged with scholars with respect to the evidence on equity, justice, and antiracism in elementary science and engineering. Also at the second meeting, the committee heard presentations and had in-depth conversations around science and literacy integration. At the third meeting, the content integration discussion was expanded to include other content areas such as engineering, computer science, and computational thinking. The committee also engaged with scholars who could help unpack the evidence on what is happening in preschools with respect to science and engineering learning.

The committee commissioned four papers to provide more in-depth analysis on the integration of science and engineering with other content areas.2 Monica E. Cardella (Purdue University), Gina Navoa Svarovksy (University of Notre Dame), and Scott Pattison (TERC) authored a paper that provided an overview of what is known about engineering education in prekindergarten through fifth grade. Diane Jass Ketelhut and Lautaro Cabrera (University of Maryland College Park) described the state of the evidence on the integration of computational thinking in early childhood and elementary science and engineering education. Tamara J. Moore (Purdue University) and Anne T. Ottenbreit-Leftwich (Indiana University) authored a paper that also examined issues of computational thinking but focused more on computational thinking through the lens of computer science. Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar (University of Michigan), Miranda S. Fitzgerald (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), Gabriel P. DellaVecchia (University of Michigan), and Kathleen M. Easley (University of Michigan) provided a comprehensive overview of the integration of literacy, science, and engineering in prekindergarten through fifth grade. The committee also commissioned a consultant, Jennifer Frey (University of Cincinnati), to ensure that the language and text throughout the report was inclusive of children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences.

Finally, the committee also had a series of conversations with scholars who are expert in the intersections of justice, antiracism, and science and engineering education: Angela Calabrese Barton, Natalie Davis, Tia Madkins, Daniel Morales-Doyle, and Sepehr Vakil. These conversations guided the committee in threading issues of justice through the report.

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2 Commissioned papers can be found on the project page at https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/enhancing-science-in-prekindergarten-through-fifth-grade.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

Standards of Evidence

The committee takes an expansive view of evidence in this report and draws on and privileges a diversity of methods. Many types of studies were included: meta-analyses and reviews, qualitative case studies, ethnographic and field studies, interview studies, randomized controlled trials, quasi-experimental comparison studies, and large-scale surveys of educators. That said, the committee recognized that the literature consisted predominantly of studies that were more descriptive in nature with few studies that could demonstrate causal effects. As appropriate, throughout the report, the committee articulates the type of research being reviewed and its strength. The committee is also careful to qualify the conclusions and subsequent recommendations that can be made based on the type and strength of evidence.

Like other previous National Academies reports (e.g., NASEM, 2015; NRC, 2012), the committee draws on a foundational NRC report (2002) to adopt the stance that “a wide variety of legitimate scientific designs are available for education research” (p. 6). From that standpoint, to be considered scientific,

. . . the design must allow direct, empirical investigation of an important question, [use methods that permit direct investigation of the question], account for the context in which the study is carried out, align with a conceptual framework, reflect careful and thorough reasoning, and disclose results to encourage debate in the scientific community. (NASEM, 2015, p. 21)

In making decisions about what evidence to include or exclude, again building on earlier committees’ work, the committee “examined the appropriateness of the design to the questions posed, whether the research methods were sufficiently explicated, and whether conclusions were warranted based on the design and available evidence” (NASEM, 2015, p. 21).

The committee relied heavily on studies that had gone through a rigorous peer-review process to help to ensure quality of design, methods, and conclusions. The report’s conclusions rely most substantially on research published in peer-reviewed journals and books. (The committee notes, however, that systemic biases mean that minoritized scholars are less likely to receive funding and have their work published in some top journals [e.g., see Li et al., 2020; Taffe and Gilpin, 2021], and thus the scholarship that is published may reflect similar systemic biases.) The committee also relied on technical reports containing information that would be hard to find in other venues (e.g., the results of a large-scale teacher survey).

In addition to peer-reviewed scholarship and technical reports, the committee also turned at times to descriptive work published in practitioner journals to round out descriptions of instructional approaches, when

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

empirical scholarship suggested the work’s efficacy or likely efficacy. Furthermore, the committee values and prioritizes the voices of practitioners, and thus at times turned to the wisdom of practice. When possible, these perspectives are complemented by peer-reviewed scholarship, but there are situations that reflect a gap in the literature (e.g., in some aspects of the education policy world) when wisdom of practice stands on its own.

Finally, the committee relied on theory to make logical conclusions where appropriate empirical evidence was lacking. The committee is careful to acknowledge when theory is the grounding for claims.

Given the charge, the committee focused most of its attention on scholarship in preschool through elementary science and engineering education. In some areas, though, studies were scarce. For example, the field of engineering education, in general, is relatively small (with somewhat more work in elementary grades than in preschool), and there is also little research connecting computational thinking with science teaching at the elementary level. As another example, there is not much research at the intersection of initial preschool teacher preparation and the teaching of science or engineering. Lastly, there is nascent research on asset-based, justice-oriented research in preschool through fifth grade science and engineering.

Because of gaps like these, the committee also drew on (a) studies in other subject areas (e.g., mathematics) and (b) studies involving older students (e.g., middle schoolers) or teachers of older students (e.g., high school biology teachers). The committee also needed at times to extrapolate beyond specific intersections. For example, some of what has been found about preparing elementary teachers of science likely also applies to preparing elementary teachers of engineering or to preparing preschool teachers of science. In those instances, though, the committee takes care to clarify where the evidence base is sparse and notes where such extrapolations seem unwarranted.

The committee’s stance is that converging lines of evidence strengthen claims. Furthermore, the committee seeks to understand social phenomena from multiple perspectives. For these reasons, the committee looked at the convergence of evidence across studies, seeking—ideally—multiple studies reflecting converging and mutually informing orientations. In addition, the committee works throughout the report to provide a fair representation of the evidence related to a topic, rather than selecting only evidence that presents a particular perspective. When evidence is sparse but the focus seems important to highlight (e.g., as is the case with regard to what is known about preparing preschool through elementary teachers for justice-oriented science and engineering instruction), the committee signals this using language such as “nascent” or “emergent” evidence, or as being “suggestive” findings.

The committee takes care to describe studies and what can be known from them with consideration of how strongly to word claims and how to word conclusions and recommendations based on the evidence base. When

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

possible, the committee describes key features of the contexts of studies. For example, the committee delineates when studies focus on preschool-age children or elementary children, because the committee recognizes the important differences across these groups. The field lacks strong methods for attending carefully to contextual variability (a point taken up in Chapter 10).

The committee notes that education in preschool through elementary science and engineering is unique in several important ways, and that those unique characteristics shape the kinds of research that can be done and is done (see Chapter 10). As this report establishes, science is rarely taught in these grades, and engineering is taught even less frequently. This idiosyncrasy and infrequency of instruction can make data collection a challenge. The low priority of science (and especially engineering) in schools can make it difficult to obtain administrators’ buy-in for studies, particularly large-scale studies. Assessment can be tricky, because young children’s talk, writing, drawings, and gestures can be a challenge to interpret (Greenfield, 2015). At the same time, the relative lack of large-scale standardized tests (in comparison to their prominence in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics at this age) can make it hard to obtain comparative baseline data about learners’ performance. Children’s primary learning context is their family, meaning learning is often situated within multiage or multigenerational groups. Changes in the populations of participants can lead to dynamic internal validity threats to studies that need to be accounted for. The vagaries of and inequities in the funding systems lead to skew, at best, and, at worst, to bias in what is and is not studied and who is involved as participants in the studies. All of these issues and more pose both conceptual and empirical challenges in conducting research in the scope of the committee’s charge, and therefore, these issues lead to challenges in synthesizing this research and making sense of it. The committee notes where these issues appear to be in play in constituting the available evidence base for exploration.

Committee’s Commitments

The committee’s concerns about language in the charge (e.g., “struggling students,” “striving students,” “students 2 or more years behind grade level”) led to important unearthing of commitments and the development of shared perspectives that would shape much of the committee’s work. Rather than a deficit framing of children, the committee instead prioritized recognizing the assets of children, as well as educators and communities, while recognizing their needs and struggles; the report provides evidence that challenges deficit framings and puts forward other, more appropriate interpretations. Committee members further discussed how particular children are often removed from science or engineering learning opportunities, and that this seems often to be the case for emergent multilingual learners, children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences, and

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

children who are perceived to be engaging in challenging behaviors (most frequently identified with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, or other children of color). Throughout the report, the committee draws on literature to show that all children can experience success in science and engineering when provided with supportive opportunities to learn.

The committee identified three categories of commitments that provided the lens through which evidence for this report was evaluated; in part, these are informed by the committee’s understanding of learning, as discussed in Chapter 3, though these commitments are intentionally broader in scope than the big ideas about learning discussed there.

Commitment 1 acknowledges that science and engineering are not neutral and are situated within a complex historicized system that ultimately shapes the work of the teaching and learning of science and engineering in preschool through fifth grade. Therefore, the committee views antiracism and justice as central elements of an educational system that works to redress societal inequities, oppressions, and the education debt that exist across the United States. This leads to the committee contextualizing the strengths of children and adults within these systems and identifies systems themselves as an important unit of analysis. This committee also puts forth a vision for equitable and just science and engineering education in preschool through elementary grades, discussed below.

Commitment 2 recognizes the strengths of children, communities, and the range of educators involved with the teaching of science and engineering. Therefore, the committee uses sociocultural approaches and asset-based language in describing these different actors and explores ways that settings for learning science and engineering can draw on, build, and attend to their strengths and needs.

Commitment 3 centers on how the committee characterizes the design of science and engineering learning and teaching. The committee builds upon the multidimensional stance of science and engineering learning that intentionally combines science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, identities, and interest, as appropriate, within particular contexts and with particular children. Moreover, this form of learning would also connect to learners’ goals, resources, and interests, and consider how those elements inform learners’ language, literacy, mathematics, computational thinking, and social skills and knowledge. This perspective is informed by and builds toward the Framework’s (NRC, 2012) vision for science and engineering teaching and learning.

WORKING TOWARD EQUITY AND JUSTICE

Science and engineering education can be conceptualized not just as a component of a school curriculum, but as a critical human and civil right for

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

children (Larimore, 2020; Tate, 2001). Yet, many children are marginalized in science and in engineering. Historically marginalized learners in science and engineering, including Black, Brown, and Indigenous children and other children of color, children with learning disabilities and/or learning differences, emergent multilingual learners,3 and children marginalized on the basis of gender, all deserve the opportunity to engage with science and engineering to make sense of the natural and designed world. The literature is replete with examples of challenges, but literature on ways to address those challenges is more recent and is advancing quickly. In this section, the committee presents a vision for how teaching science and engineering in preschool through elementary can also be work toward equity and justice. In doing so, the committee outlines issues of inequity and then lays out possible definitions of “equity.”

Issues of Inequity in Preschool Through Elementary Science and Engineering Learning

This is a pivotal moment in history. As noted above, since the start of 2020, the country has been facing a convergence of both new and longstanding crises—the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing systemic racism and societal unrest in response to it, and accelerating climate perils. All of these have implications for the teaching and learning taking place in and out of schools.

Science and engineering disciplines have historical connections to racism and other forms of oppression. In the United States, both science and engineering have come to be considered to be work best done by white men. Society at large has approached science and engineering from a Eurocentric perspective, valued mainly the science and engineering done by white men, and marginalized science and engineering as practiced by other groups, including Black and Indigenous peoples. Many groups, including though not limited to people of color and women, have been excluded from doing science, had their contributions stolen or misrepresented, or been ignored (Bang et al., 2012; Calabrese Barton and Tan, 2020). Western or Eurocentric science and engineering have also been, and continue to be, used as tools to subjugate people of color (Bang et al., 2012; Gould, 1996; Warren et al., 2020). While some people of color may have science- and engineering-related experiences within their communities based on trust and thriving, collectively many experiences and realities have also led to mistrust of Eurocentric science and a disconnect between science and the communities of children of color.

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3 Throughout the report, the committee uses phrases like “emergent multilingual learners” in keeping with the orientation of recognizing children’s assets but uses “English learners” where referring to federal classifications or when it is the term used by the authors of a study being referenced.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

In addition, funding for schools in the United States has historically been tied to property taxes, which are tied to property values (Baker and Corcoran, 2012; Morgan and Amerikaner, 2018). Because of redlining and other efforts to keep people of color out of certain neighborhoods, some schools have been inadequately funded for generations (NASEM, 2019a). This limits funding for science and engineering curriculum materials, instructional resources, and professional learning experiences for teachers. Furthermore, because of state accountability and other factors, these schools often have outsized focus on test scores, leading to emphasis on ELA and mathematics.

Finally, the preschool and elementary teaching force is predominantly white women (see Chapter 8), which is markedly different than the demographics of the current student population (NASEM, 2020). Children need opportunities to see their own ways of knowing (epistemologies) reflected in the work (Bang and Medin, 2010). That is: although representation is important—children need to see people who look like them doing the work of science and engineering—it is not enough. Children also need to discover that their ways of thinking about the world are valid and familiar to others, including teachers, scientists, and engineers (Sepehr Vakil, personal communication, November 18, 2020). Educators need to work to minimize this epistemological dissonance that children may experience in science and engineering learning. Educators can begin this effort by recognizing how their own identities shape their thinking about science and engineering teaching and learning in classrooms. Furthermore, teachers need to be supported in designing science and engineering learning environments and engaging in practices and pedagogies that support the full range of learners in their classrooms (NASEM, 2020).

School reform that works toward justice cannot involve simply tweaking the current status quo; educators must do meaningful work at the center of the enterprise (Daniel Morales-Doyle, personal communication, November 19, 2020). Recognizing and addressing these histories requires a reframing and reorganization of the purposes of learning, how children come to develop and demonstrate proficiencies for investigation and design, the pedagogies for supporting learning and development, the forms of science and engineering that are prioritized in the curriculum, how educators are supported in their learning and development, and the leadership in schools and districts. This report aims to work toward these goals. The approaches described next offer four levers for working toward change.

Approaches to Equity and Justice

“Equity,” “justice,” and related terms are used in the research literature in numerous ways; defining these ideas is not straightforward. The committee found that, across the literature in science and engineering

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

education reviewed for the report, there were both implicit and explicit ways of using the terms “equity” and “justice.” For example, the Framework (NRC, 2012) presented multiple definitions of equity, including “equity as an expression of socially enlightened self-interest,” “equity as an expression of social justice,” and equity based on “the commonsense idea of fairness” (p. 278). The committee benefited from discussions to gain clarity on definitions of equity that are present in the literature on preschool through elementary science and engineering education (e.g., Bell, 2019; Calabrese Barton and Tan, 2019; Haverly et al., 2020; Philip and Azevedo, 2017). Philip and Azevedo (2017) argue that “implicit and explicit values and goals … are intertwined with conceptions of equity” (p. 527), and that when definitions of equity and justice are left implicit, it opens the door to perpetuating historicized power and racial dynamics in learning settings.

The committee recognizes, though, that there is still much work to be done to advance and achieve equity and justice in science and engineering learning, including describing and accounting for consequences of intersecting identities in this work. Where possible, the report addresses research findings from multiple dimensions of identity (including based on race, [dis] ability or learning difference, language background, or gender) in science and engineering education in preschool through elementary.

Four approaches to equity were utilized throughout the report (noting that there are strengths and potential pitfalls for each): (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. Table 1-1 defines these approaches, adapted from Philip and Azevedo (2017) and Rodriguez (2015), and Table 1-2 shows examples of each from different aspects of teaching and learning science and engineering that this report covers.

The committee found it productive to consider approaches to equity within a spectrum—from increasing access to using science and engineering to redress injustices and disrupt systemic oppressions—that the field can work toward equity and justice in preschool and elementary science and engineering. This report uses the term “equity” to address ways—through changing policies and practices—to remove barriers to participation in science and engineering and increase achievement, representation, and identification (mainly the first two approaches, though all four approaches work toward equity). Equity thus strives for comparable levels of attainment and/or participation. The report uses the term “justice” to refer specifically to addressing systemic oppressions that cause those barriers (mainly the third

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

TABLE 1-1 Four Approaches to Equity and Their Possible Pitfalls

Description Possible Pitfalls
Approach #1: Increasing opportunity and access to high-quality science and engineering learning and instruction.
  • Shift forms of instruction and classroom norms to improve learning.
  • Provide supplemental experiences for historically under-represented communities.
  • Increase presence and distribution of high-quality science and engineering curriculum.
  • Increase presence of well-prepared teachers.
  • Leaves dominant forms of science and engineering untouched.
  • Leaves historicized ways that Eurocentric science and engineering have been used as tools of oppression invisible.
Approach #2: Emphasizing increased achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering.
  • Improve learners’ achievement in school science by generating interest and fostering connections to classroom disciplines.
  • Attend to affective aspects of learning to promote personal relevance and invite learners’ identities into the learning environment.
  • Leaves dominant forms of science and engineering untouched.
  • Leaves historicized ways that Eurocentric science and engineering have been used as tools of oppression invisible.
  • Can lead to static notions of “culture” or “cultural essentialization.”
  • Leaves the door open for deficit-based perspectives that try to remediate learners and/or their communities.
  • Strategies might privilege only achievement or only identity, rather than both.
Approach #3: Expanding what constitutes science and engineering.
  • Seeks to examine and reframe who does science, what counts as science, and in what contexts—and how they might be productively leveraged in science and engineering learning environments.
  • Curriculum and instruction allow for, invite, and build on learners’ and families’ diverse sensemaking and cultural and linguistic resources.
  • Accounting for heterogenous understandings of the natural and designed world can expand what constitutes science and engineering. Bringing this broader view supports more children, and also bolsters science and engineering as disciplines.
  • Not necessarily connected to larger social movement to upend systemic oppression.
  • Unlikely to change larger structures of science and engineering professional practices.
  • If not adopted as part of a larger structural change, can allow a mismatch with how children are evaluated and assessed, which may leave minoritized children at a disadvantage.
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Description Possible Pitfalls
Approach #4: Seeing science and engineering as part of justice movements.
  • Offers new possibilities for understanding the relationship between science, equity, and justice. Starts with prioritizing social movements that address the communities’ needs and goals, and then finds ways for science and engineering to support the progress toward those projects.
  • Examining power and historicity can support learning about relationships between human communities and more-than-human communities across time periods.
  • More proximal learning goals of approaches to equity 1-3 might be eclipsed.
  • Justice movements may not intersect with classroom activities.
  • Current assessment tools and practices may not take into account systemic barriers or historicized relationships with assessments.

SOURCE: Based on Philip and Azevedo (2017); Rodriguez (2015).

TABLE 1-2 Four Approaches to Equity and Nonexhaustive Examples of Each

Forms of Learning Activity and Design The Roles of Teachers, Teacher Education, and Professional Learning The Roles of Curricular Materials
Approach #1: Increasing opportunity and access to high-quality science and engineering learning and instruction.
Barriers to participation are removed (technology access, accommodations for learning disabilities and/or learning differences, differentiation, etc.). Teachers
  • see science “achievement gaps” as “opportunity gaps.”
  • work to increase opportunities especially for children of color to engage with science and engineering.
Curricular materials
  • are translated into multiple languages.
  • use multiple modalities (text, audio, etc.) for children to access information.
  • use phenomena and design challenges to motivate children to engage in science and engineering practices.
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Forms of Learning Activity and Design The Roles of Teachers, Teacher Education, and Professional Learning The Roles of Curricular Materials
Approach #2: Emphasize increased achievement, representation, and identification with science and engineering.
Children apply science and engineering concepts to their everyday lives. Children have choices for conducting investigations and designs. Teachers learn ways
  • to increase representation of “who does science and engineering” to include a range of historically marginalized groups, across gender, learning disabilities and/or learning differences, and linguistic and cultural background.
  • to connect science and engineering learning with children’s interests and identities.
Curricular materials
  • include representations of scientists and engineers of color and children of color doing science and engineering.
  • encourage children to tie their cultural and linguistic backgrounds to science and engineering concepts.
Approach #3: Expanding what constitutes science and engineering.
Family knowledge and practices are regularly invited and incorporated into emerging classroom knowledge. Children conduct investigations that include data collection from both the natural or designed world and community interviews with elders. The learning environment accepts multiple forms of expressing sensemaking—from quantitative measurements to embodied descriptions. Teachers
  • learn to see and respond to the richness in children’s sensemaking, even if it does not reflect fully formed canonical science ideas, or “look and sound” like Eurocentric (and white, middle class) science and engineering norms or language.
  • recognize and build on the values and ways of knowing and being of their children and their communities, and integrate them into their teaching.
Curricular materials
  • make Eurocentric science and engineering norms and practices explicit; space is made for multiple ways of knowing, being, and valuing.
  • are designed to be flexible so that educators can adapt them to address local socioecological phenomena and the needs and goals of their children’s communities.
  • support students and their families in examining their relationships with the natural world.
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Forms of Learning Activity and Design The Roles of Teachers, Teacher Education, and Professional Learning The Roles of Curricular Materials
Approach #4: Seeing science and engineering as part of justice movements.
Children learn about the connection between the natural world and human actions and decision making.

Children investigate how Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color experience disproportionate effects of food deserts, natural hazards, and environmental pollution.
Teachers
  • recognize the connection between their own power and positionality, Western or Eurocentric science and engineering, and children’s and families’ engagement in science and engineering.
  • learn about the connections among a science phenomenon or engineering design, local or global instances of the phenomenon or design, and implications for communities.
Curricular materials invite
  • children to ask and answer their own questions about community-relevant issues and make decisions for ethical futures.
  • children, families, and teachers to examine issues from historicized lenses, and understand how contemporary scientific practices or concepts may have deep roots in racist or other oppressive histories.

SOURCE: Based on Philip and Azevedo (2017); Rodriguez (2015).

and fourth approaches),4 seeking fair treatment of all people and supporting opportunities for self-determination and thriving. When the committee says “working toward equity and justice,” it refers to all four approaches, working synergistically.

To genuinely and fully work toward disrupting systemic oppression, all four approaches are necessary. That said, it is important to recognize a few key assumptions. First, systems, institutions, and individuals differ in their starting points for approaching this work, and thus may reasonably employ different approaches. Second, work is needed on multiple scales: from individual, to classroom, school, and institutional or systemic levels. Third, context matters; some contexts are more ready to engage in some approaches compared to others. This does not mean that working toward justice is not important in all settings—just that starting points may differ across contexts. Finally, it seems that progress toward equity may start with the first and second approaches, and more substantive steps toward justice

___________________

4 “Justice” here refers to educational justice; social justice is a broader term.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

may focus on the third and fourth approaches. Analyses at the end of each chapter of the report summarize research related to each approach to equity and illustrate how these steps may be taken. Fully connecting the vision of the Framework with the full range of approaches to promoting equity and justice will be challenging and require long-term investments. The end-of-chapter analyses provide starting points for engaging in this crucial work.

Each approach to equity listed in Tables 1-1 and 1-2 can be tied to specific equity projects, in particular antiracist education. For example, in Approach 1, increasing opportunity and access, a district could recognize that schools that serve predominantly Black, Indigenous, and other children of color are underserved in their science and engineering resources and intentionally provide more access to resources to those schools, children, and families (Spillane et al., 2001). In Approach 2, emphasizing achievement, representation, and identification with science, professional learning experiences could intentionally address culturally responsive pedagogies that support teachers in connecting school science and engineering to the cultural and familial practices of children. For example, teachers learn how techniques like photo-elicitation or self-documentation (Tzou and Bell, 2010) may allow children and families to document examples from their everyday lives that connect to specific science and engineering concepts taught in the classroom. In Approach 3, expanding what constitutes science and engineering, curriculum materials could support teachers and children in making space for multiple ways of knowing and doing science and engineering. For example, children could be encouraged to express their sensemaking using words in everyday language (including languages other than English) or embodied movements, rather than only using scientific vocabulary (e.g., Kotler, 2020). In Approach 4, seeing science and engineering as part of justice movements, curriculum materials could intentionally connect scientific concepts to larger societal institutions, thus supporting a kind of critical literacy in science (Davis and Schaeffer, 2019). For example, when taking a walk outdoors, preschool teachers could point out how much the neighborhood has changed over the years and ask about who is making those decisions, and how those decisions might be affecting the trees and animals that live there. As another example, curriculum materials could support children to explore the transportation needs of their community, design possible solutions that would make motorized transportation safer and more efficient, and build on their insights to advocate for better and safer transit infrastructure. Although these approaches can be used separately, finding synergies will be most productive for achieving equity and justice.

The approaches to equity and, potentially, justice outlined above do not necessarily lead to antiracist education. For example, in Approach 1, accommodations could be made for children with neurological differences but do nothing to address historicized differences in access to science and

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

engineering resources that fall along racial lines, or in Approach 3, multiple ways of knowing and doing science and engineering could be invited into the learning space, but some could still be valued over others along racialized dynamics. The committee also recognizes the importance of teachers interrogating their own positionalities and identities in working toward equity and justice, as explored in Chapter 5.

To guide readers in considering how educators can work toward equity and justice in preschool through elementary science and engineering, each chapter ends with a synthesis of the evidence for each approach (numbered 1–4). The analyses at the end of the chapters of the report 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 with regard to the fourth.

REPORT ORGANIZATION

Overall, the report argues that preschool through elementary children bring many strengths to engaging with science and engineering—including interest, wonder, experiences with the natural and designed worlds, and early proficiencies with investigation and design—that can all be nurtured with support. Educators, as well, bring many strengths and can support children when provided with support themselves. Although there is a gap between the current status quo and the vision put forward in this report, equitably recognizing and leveraging all of these strengths—individually, collectively, and systemically—will help the educational endeavor move closer to the vision.

To help move toward this vision, this report examines the research on opportunities to engage with science and engineering learning in preschool through elementary grades. Chapters 24 provide the foundation upon which the subsequent chapters build. In Chapter 2, the committee provides a landscape of the preschool and elementary educational systems and outlines the different actors and factors that shape what is happening in the classroom. The chapter discusses the impact of accountability, standards, and time, and furthers the case for orienting toward equity and justice. Chapter 3 describes the contexts where children learn, including but not limited to the classroom, and puts forward an understanding of learning as situated in relationships and histories that shape the ways individuals engage with science and engineering. Chapter 4 turns to the development of children’s proficiencies related to investigation and design, describing forms of activity in which children engage.

The next set of chapters (5–9) turns to designing and supporting instructional environments that build on children’s proficiencies in investiga-

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×

tion and design. Chapter 5 examines the evidence related to the design of learning environments. Chapter 6 describes the potential of integrating across domains, as this has been offered to be a solution to having more instructional time in a day to engage with science and engineering as well as reflecting more authentic scientific and engineering practice. Building on the previous chapters, Chapter 7 explores the role of curriculum materials and instructional resources. Chapter 8 turns to the educator and the opportunities that they need to ensure that children are engaged in robust, high-quality science and engineering. It examines what is known about preservice teacher education and the types of ongoing professional learning experiences in-service teachers need. Chapter 9 describes how policies and leadership can facilitate high-quality science and engineering learning in preschool through elementary grades. Finally, Chapter 10 presents the conclusions and recommendations and identifies key areas that warrant future research.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page11
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page12
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page13
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page14
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page15
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page16
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page17
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page18
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page19
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page20
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page21
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page22
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page23
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page24
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page25
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page26
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page27
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page28
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page29
Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Science and Engineering in Preschool Through Elementary Grades: The Brilliance of Children and the Strengths of Educators. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26215.
×
Page30
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Starting in early childhood, children are capable of learning sophisticated science and engineering concepts and engage in disciplinary practices. They are deeply curious about the world around them and eager to investigate the many questions they have about their environment. Educators can develop learning environments that support the development and demonstration of proficiencies in science and engineering, including making connections across the contexts of learning, which can help children see their ideas, interests, and practices as meaningful not just for school, but also in their lives. Unfortunately, in many preschool and elementary schools science gets relatively little attention compared to English language arts and mathematics. In addition, many early childhood and elementary teachers do not have extensive grounding in science and engineering content.

Science and Engineering in Preschool through Elementary Grades provides evidence-based guidance on effective approaches to preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction that supports the success of all students. This report evaluates the state of the evidence on learning experiences prior to school; promising instructional approaches and what is needed for implementation to include teacher professional development, curriculum, and instructional materials; and the policies and practices at all levels that constrain or facilitate efforts to enhance preschool through elementary science and engineering.

Building a solid foundation in science and engineering in the elementary grades sets the stage for later success, both by sustaining and enhancing students' natural enthusiasm for science and engineering and by establishing the knowledge and skills they need to approach the more challenging topics introduced in later grades. Through evidence-based guidance on effective approaches to preschool through elementary science and engineering instruction, this report will help teachers to support the success of all students.

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