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The Littlest Scientists

How much science do four-year-olds know? More than you’d think.

To find out if the youngest students bring science knowledge with them to kindergarten, and if they’re capable of learning more than previously assumed, College of Education program coordinator Mary Hobbs and her research team observed, mentored and gathered data alongside 24 Austin area pre-kindergarten teachers.

Mary E. Hobbs, Ph.D.

Mary E. Hobbs, Ph.D.

An additional 24 AISD comparison classrooms were observed and, in all, 2,500 children were involved in the landmark project.

“What we found was that all children have science experiences and knowledge by kindergarten,” said Hobbs, who is coordinator for science initiatives in the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching. “They may come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and have parents with different levels of education attainment, but each child has absorbed some of what we’d define as science content by kindergarten.”

To assess children’s knowledge, teachers involved in the project gave them several tasks – like sorting and categorizing – that would reveal their grasp of basic, foundational science concepts.

Teachers and students also created raised bed gardens to give the children an outdoor lab in which to use their current science skills and learn even more about science.  Building the gardens, filling them with plants and nurturing the plants provided rich and varied opportunities for teaching life science, physical science and earth science.

According to Hobbs, the garden was an ideal resource to support student learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics because:

  • research has shown that preschool children normally are very drawn to the natural world and natural objects.
  • an onsite project like the garden gives all children, regardless of background and family financial resources, a common learning experience.
  • it’s a context in which children can learn everything from facts about plants, animals and the weather to concepts of force and motion.
James P . Barufaldi, Ph.D.

James P . Barufaldi, Ph.D.

“Learning tends to increase and problem-solving skills improve when children have opportunities to explore and they’re able to indulge their natural curiosity,” said Hobbs, “The garden allows children to learn through hands-on activities and inquiry-based instruction. It’s also a learning environment that can be adapted for any age group and in a variety of settings.”

The $2 million, four-year research project, called Building BLOCKS for Science, was the first of its kind to be funded by the National Science Foundation. Dr. James Barufaldi, director for the college’s Center for STEM Education, and Hobbs were co-principal investigators on the grant.

“What we found was that all children have science experiences and knowledge by kindergarten.” – Dr. Mary Hobbs

“The teachers were remarkably responsive and very excited about learning more science themselves as well as discussing with us the best ways to engage the children in science,” said Hobbs. “In working with the students, they started with what they thought was appropriate for that age group and as soon as they observed the students were capable of handling more, they adapted and began to add more varied and challenging activities.”

As part of the grant, the teachers were given intensive professional development training and mentoring support.

Hobbs and her team have shared their project findings with AISD, other Austin area school districts and many private day care facilities. The schools have implemented many of Hobbs’ recommendations, including building over 200 school gardens to use as teaching tools.

“We discovered that adults tend to consistently underestimate how much young children know and understand,” said Hobbs. “Seeing that they’re capable of much more, we can aim to adapt curriculum and do the necessary teacher training and mentoring to better prepare these students for the learning opportunities they’ll encounter later. Science is best taught by doing, and we are doing science in Austin!”

Photos by: Christina S. Murrey


Highlights

  • Dr. James Barufaldi and Dr. Mary Hobbs were co-principal investigators on a grant to examine how much science pre-K children know and can learn.
  • $2 million, four-year project
  • First of its kind to be funded by the National Science Foundation
  • 2,500 Austin area pre-K students were involved in the study
  • 24 teachers received mentoring and helped the researchers gather data

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