Discover the teaching approach behind Sid the Science Kid!
Find out how in this Q&A with the co-author of Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS): Facilitating Scientific Ways of Thinking, Talking, Doing, and Understanding
Rochel Gelman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and cognitive science and the co-director of the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science. Her research program is organized around a longtime interest in learning, cognition, and developmental cognitive science. Dr. Gelman has collaborated with school and museum professionals in research on the creation of environments that promote math and science learning in schools and museums. Preschool Pathways to Science represents her most extensive effort of this kind.
The conceptual content of Sid the Science Kid is based on national science learning standards, cognitive learning theory, and the PrePS approach. Dr. Gelman and PrePS co-author Gay Macdonald are members of the board of consultants for Sid the Science Kid, and fellow co-authors Dr. Kimberly Brenneman and Moisés Román serve as scientific advisors to the show.
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Q: In your introduction to Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS™), you describe children as "scientists in waiting." What do you mean?
A: Science involves asking questions about the nature of the world of objects and events following a series of processes. Young children have a tendency to ask questions about their world again and again. They play with the same objects over and over. They have a tendency to repeat lots of activities: they pour water in and out of containers; they play in sandboxes, repeatedly filling and emptying buckets, digging out holes and filling them with stones, water, and other objects; they bang pots and pans together; and so on. These inclinations overlap with some aspects of scientific inquiry, but do not fully constitute the scientific method; thus, we dub them "scientists in waiting."
Q: What skills can teachers cultivate to help children begin to practice scientific methods?
A: Science involves the use of a set of processes that do not evolve spontaneously, either in children or adults. One has to create environments and provide opportunities for children to participate in the kinds of processes that contribute to the scientific method. These include making repeated observations with a variety of their senses; comparing and contrasting a particular object or event with another object or event; making and checking predictions; recording and dating their observations; and communicating and interpreting those observations.
Q: How can teachers shape children's natural inquisitiveness so that it develops into a more scientific approach?
A: Every time we introduce children to another one of these scientific processes, we are amazed at how long the children will pay attention. It is as if they have never seen an orange or a block. We can motivate them further by guiding them on a relevant science-learning path. In this example from the book, see how the teacher invites children to compare and contrast objects, using the example of an orange:
Teacher (points as she gives different children a chance to answer): What is on the outside of an orange?
Child 1: The peel.
Teacher: Why do you think it has a peel?
Child 2: To keep it warm.
Child 3: To protect it.
Child 4: So the juice doesn't come out.
Teacher: Does anything else have a peel? (Notice the important role of the teacher's question in expanding the children's thinking.)
Class: Yes!!! Apples, onions, bananas, potatoes, trees have bark, lemons, turtles, worms ...
Teacher: Why do you think people have skin? (Again, the teacher moves the class forward by introducing a different kind of outside surface.)
Child 5: To protect us.
Child 6: To keep all our blood in.
Child 7: To keep us warm.
On subsequent days the teacher can move the children along the science-learning path by encouraging children to compare and contrast objects with different surface material.
Q: How does the children's scientific exploration complement their emerging literacy skills?
A: By systematically introducing different objects to explore similar conceptsblocks covered in felt or sandpaper, for instance, rather than food or animalsyou are providing a natural way to introduce new words in a meaningful way. Young children will expand their vocabulary as they seek adjectives that best describe what they are observing: slippery, smooth, bumpy, rough.
Q: In what way might a PrePS classroom look different from a typical preschool classroom?
A: Since studying similaries and differences is at the heart of the experimental method, a PrePS classroom will provide plenty of opportunity for comparing and contrasting. Many teachers have their young students grow plants from seeds; teachers in a PrePS classroom will have them plant two different kinds of seeds.
Scientists record and date their observations, and so do children in a PrePS classroom. They may draw and dictate what they observe, predict, and discover. An adult writes down what the children say about their drawing and the children date their work. (We hit upon the idea of providing date stamps to the children. This produced an oops! Date stamps were treated like any other new toy. The children stamped all over the pages. But in time, they came to understand the purpose of the device and even reminded us to change the date every time they made new journal entries.)
Scientists also communicate their work to others. A PrePS classroom will have examples on the walls of what children discover. The children love these displays, as do the parents or guardians, who often report that they end up in conversations about what happened in science. The emphasis on using appropriate terms means the children learn the language of science.
Q: How does the cognitive learning theory behind the PrePS curriculum differ from other thinking about preschool science learning?
A: In other thinking, it is widely assumed that preschool children's focus is on the here and now and the concrete; it follows that they are not capable of the abstract thinking, systematic classification, inferences and prediction necessary for grasping the concepts of the scientific method.
There is emerging evidence, however, that young children can grasp concepts in abstract ways in certain basic domains. Say we ask the children to name something we are thinking of that can fly: They might guess a bird, a bug, or a plane. We add that the object is a living thing and they reject the plane as an option. Why? They learn that animate and inanimate objects make use of different sources of energy when they move; the bird and bug move as a result of an internal biological source, and the plane does not. The children learn the verb "fly" has different meanings depending on whether the subject is animate or not. They learn to connect the meaning of words to greater concepts. The PrePS approach focuses on building these interrelated concepts rather than just introducing standalone themes.
Q: What is your view of preschool children's potential for science learning?
A: The proof is in the pudding. Young children are able to grasp much about the methods and content of science. We can build a curriculum that is based on their competence for learning in early developing domains of knowledge: simple arithmetic; differences between animate and inanimate objects; plants and their growth cycles; social and physical causality, to name a few. Their natural exploration to discover what objects are made of, how they move, and how they change over time closely mimics what scientists do. With a curriculum such as PrePS, an instructor can guide children's own curiosity toward the fun of doing science in a coherent, domain-building way.
Of course it will be a long time before the children are up to learning about Newton's laws of motion, Mendelian genetics, or biochemistry, but there is no reason not to start children on revelant learning paths that will lead to more sophisticated lessons later in their learning.