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Commentary: Making school and home a science lab for the littlest learners

Cindy Hoisington | September 28, 2022



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The 21st century has launched an unprecedented focus on science and STEM education. In this age of pandemics, climate change, food shortages and other global issues, the country absolutely needs more scientists. However, it’s clear that scientific thinking isn’t just for scientists anymore. Basing decisions on evidence and separating fact from fiction are fast becoming essential skills for succeeding in the workforce and making sound personal and family decisions (Do I still need to wear a mask? Are droughts and fires our new normal? Are genetically modified foods healthy?). Even pre-K, kindergarten and early elementary teachers are now expected to engage their students in doing what scientists do and thinking like scientists think.

Research published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society shows that families’ close relationships with their children ideally position them to initiate, support and sustain an early interest in science, science topics and science tools. However, many families, especially those in low-resource communities, lack access to high-quality resources for supporting early science. This creates a science opportunity gap among children even before they enter kindergarten.

How can teachers help families support their children’s science exploration and thinking at home and leverage that influence to promote engagement in science at school? A team of educators and researchers at the Education Development Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, in partnership with the Connecticut Science Center and supported by the National Science Foundation, is exploring ways to help teachers do exactly that. In the process, we have found the following four strategies to be instrumental in creating home/school science connections that benefit all young students.

Choose topics of study that can be investigated directly at school and at home

Subjects such as water, structures and shadows provide a vehicle for long-term investigations at school that connect children to big ideas in physical science. These include how liquids look, move and flow in different situations; how materials and design influence a building’s strength and stability; and how shadows change depending on the position of the light source. Share with families photos and short videos that show what children are doing, saying and thinking during explorations of these topics in school, and include information about how these experiences support learning and development. Encourage families to focus on these same subjects at home during everyday family activities using simple materials — experimenting with water in the bathtub, building with paper cups at playtime, and making and observing shadows part of the bedtime routine. Invite families to take photos and videos that can be sent to school and shared in class.

Provide concrete strategies and resources for supporting family science

Send home hard copies or links to family tip sheets with information, activities and questions that can stimulate children’s exploration and thinking on different topics. For example, provide simple instructions for supporting shadow play outdoors on a sunny day. Include suggested questions such as: What do you notice about your shadow? How is it similar to/different from you? How can you make your shadow change shape? Ask families to help their children draw and describe their shadows and return the drawings to school for sharing and comparing. Encourage parents to access high-quality publicly available science resources for families, such as PEEP and the Big Wide World and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!.

Leverage families’ hidden science expertise

Use teacher/parent conferences and social media surveys to learn about families’ work, hobbies or interests that relate to science topics you are planning to cover at school. Do you have parents with knowledge of plumbing, gardening or construction work? Invite them to bring their tools, favorite plants or blueprints with the class. Have them share stories about how they got interested in these topics as children. If face-to-face visits are not permitted, schedule a virtual visit. Interacting with family and community role models who represent various ethnicities, cultures and languages helps children view themselves in a science role.

Host a family science event

Family science events enable teachers to interact directly with parents and caregivers and to encourage adult/child interaction and conversation. They also provide an opportunity for teachers to model interactions and questions that promote children’s inquiry and thinking. During a structures family event, for example, prepare stations where parents and children can build on the floor with a variety of large building materials, build at tables with manipulative toys and recyclable objects, draw and write about the structures they created together and browse books with building themes such as Brick by Brick and Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building. Include wordless books such as Changes, Changes that families can talk about in their primary home languages. Talk directly with parents about how these activities benefit children’s cognitive, social-emotional and language development, and share tip sheets for related home explorations.

Building partnerships with parents around science can be challenging, especially as teachers, families and schools cope with COVID-related stressors. Try one or two strategies, collaborate with like-minded colleagues and seek support from school administrators to strengthen your relationships with families around science. You will be amazed at the impact even small steps can have on young students, their families and your own science teaching.

Cindy Hoisington is a project director at Education Development Center, where she co-leads the Supporting Science Inquiry, Interest and STEM Thinking for Young Dual Language Learners (SISTEM) project, supported by the National Science Foundation.

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