How do young children develop their ideas about science and scientists' work in their first year of school? How do we teach them to believe they are real scientists? In this article, we--a university science educator, a kindergarten teacher, and a Penn State University teaching intern--share our inquiry into these questions in a kindergarten classroom during an exciting, six-week unit on seeds.
Research and Planning
The three of us spent four after-school sessions (about 1.5 hours each) pulling together resources and planning the outline for the unit. As the unit unfolded, we debriefed each day, and once a week met after school to plan the next week's lessons.
We started with the district's plants unit, which focused on seeds and their conditions for growth, and plants, their parts, and their conditions for growth. We then searched the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996), the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993), and Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (NRC 2000), for related concepts about seeds and plants and scientific inquiry in grades K-2.
We next considered which of those concepts students had already learned in a "plants and their needs" unit earlier in the year. Children had learned that plants need water and sunlight to grow, so we chose to focus this unit on seeds, their structures and functions, and growth into plants. In this unit, we wanted to help students understand where plants come from and how they grow.
Then, we examined the research on children's thinking about plants and growth. We found that children sometimes think that grass and trees are not plants (Barman et al. 2003) and that plants take in food from outside themselves (Roth 1985), just like people. We also knew that young children, just as many adults, have stereotypical views of scientists and their work (e.g., Barman et al. 1997; Schibeci and Sorenson 1983).
Next, we read and discussed the National Research Council's report, Ready, Set, Science! (Michaels, Shouse, and Schweingruber 2008), with its new vision for K-8 science. Michaels and her colleagues provide a summary (and classroom vignettes) for educators based on the research report, Taking Science to School (Duschl, Schweingruber, and Shouse 2007). The authors argue that young children are more capable of engaging in scientific reasoning, discourses, and practices than previously thought. They describe four important strands of scientific proficiency to weave within and across science lesson.
1. Know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world (e.g., seeds have stored food in their cotyledons and use that to start growing);
2. Generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations (e.g., some seeds are not growing because they have too much water);
3. Understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge (e.g., placing the same kinds of seeds in each of three baggies with different amounts of water); and
4. Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse (e.g., "I disagree with Jeremy, because I think the water is the food for the plant.")
Synthesizing these sets of information into a coherent unit gave us a lot to talk about. We also realized that we needed to find out what our kindergartners thought about seeds and their growth before we could begin any unit lessons.
We asked the children to share their ideas about seeds, what they needed to grow, what plant parts developed as the seed grew, and what scientists did when they went to work.
Students relied almost exclusively on appearance when deciding whether objects were seeds or not. None of the students thought there was anything inside the seed, except possibly another "baby" seed. Few students had ideas about scientists and their work, except for the usual "blow things …