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Surprising Science

Early Science Education Is Suffering a Crisis of Confidence—That’s a Big Problem

Early childhood science education can have significant positive effects on the achievement gap and on students’ educational outcomes later on.
Christopher Cedeno, 7, of Silver Spring, MD, tries out a virtual reality mirror game July 12, 2001 during the opening ceremony of the exhibition, 'Brain: The World Inside Your Head,' at the Smithsonian Institution (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Undoubtedly, scientific literacy has become a key competency to acquire in school. The skills it teaches are vital for anyone entering the workforce of the future. But for children to develop the skills, they need a proper foundation, usually laid in elementary school—and even earlier.

Results from science achievement tests, however, show that U.S. elementary students aren’t performing well. The last round of testing in 2015 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only 38% of fourth graders score at or above proficiency in physical science, life science, and Earth and space sciences. 

Teachers, of course, play a crucial role in sparking students’ interest in science. While children are naturally curious about the surrounding world, they do need guided instruction to develop scientific reasoning. It turns out, however, that most early childhood educators feel unprepared to teach science.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and student Justin De La Cruz work on a science project with worms during a visit to a pre-K classroom at P.S.1 on Henry St. in Manhattan on April 3, 2014 in New York City. (Susan Watts-Pool/Getty Images)

Researchers from Michigan State University recently published a study in the journal Early Education and Development which found that teachers’ level of self-efficacy (their perceived ability and enjoyment for teaching a subject) for science and math was significantly lower than that for literacy.This is likely the reason why only 42% of the teachers in the study engaged in science instruction three to four times a week. Compare that to the 99% of teachers studied who engaged in literacy instruction that often. Collected from 67 Head Start classrooms, the data showed that the quality of science instruction was also lower than that of literacy. 

Researchers point out that teachers’ lack of confidence for teaching science may be a result of multiple factors like lack of preparation, lack of professional development opportunities and pressure from parents and administrators to focus on literacy instruction instead.

Early childhood science education, however, can have significant positive effects on the achievement gap and on students’ educational outcomes later on. Science education actually results in the highest quality teacher-child interactions. During that time teachers support students with concept development, help them expand their ideas, and encourage them to use open-ended questions and advanced language.

Lead author Hope Gerde, associate professor in MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies concludes that:

“If we are to improve U.S. children’s science learning, we must provide quality opportunities, in teacher education programs and professional development offerings, for early childhood teachers to develop knowledge and skills in science.”


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