Study finds young students can collaborate and think like scientists

October 27, 2009

Young children are capable of working and thinking in much the same ways that scientists do, according to a study headed by a Penn State researcher.

Deborah Smith, assistant professor of science education, and two colleagues showed how teachers create opportunities for children to take up scientific discourses and practices in their classroom work. The research found that when the children acted in a community of peers, they not only attained a deep understanding of the science, but also an appreciation for how they could make scientific knowledge themselves.

Smith collaborated with two College of Education alumni -- Jessica Cowan, a kindergarten teacher at a central Pennsylvania elementary school, and Alicia Culp, who at the time of the study was an undergraduate intern in the Penn State teacher education program. Culp now is an elementary school teacher in Bavaria, Germany.

Smith, Cowan and Culp describe their work in an article titled “Growing Seeds and Scientists” in the September issue of Science & Children, a peer-reviewed journal for elementary teachers.

In 2007, the National Research Council invited a national committee of scientists, science educators, cognitive scientists and teachers to investigate and summarize the research on how children learn science in kindergarten through eighth grade. Their report, "Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8," contends that young children can engage in scientific reasoning more readily than previously thought. The report was authored by Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber and Andrew W. Shouse. Duschl now is Waterbury chaired professor in secondary education at Penn State.

Duschl and his colleagues proposed four strands of scientific learning to be woven throughout lessons, so that students:

  • know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world;
  • generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations;
  • understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and
  • participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.

The four strands, the authors said, are of equal importance and have an interwoven relationship. By experiencing all four strands, students are more likely to grasp important ideas in science.

Smith was a teacher adviser to the national committee at the time, and later she worked with Sarah Michaels, Andrew Shouse and Heidi Schweingruber, authors of the 2008 book "Ready, Set, Science!" to summarize the report for educators.

“I knew, from my own work with preschoolers, that young children were excited about and more capable in science than we thought,” said Smith. “I was eager to try embedding the four strands to see what might be possible with them.”

Smith, Cowan and Culp explored the four-strands framework in Cowan’s kindergarten class. The children were studying how plants grow from seeds. They shared their predictions and ideas with their classmates, conducted investigations to test their ideas, varied growing conditions and created a data chart and graphs to record the results.

“The classroom activities engaged the students in the ways that scientists use talk, writing, drawing, investigations, tools, representations and explanations to make knowledge,” said Smith.

The four strands of scientific learning were included in various aspects of the class project. For example, the students learned that scientists often attend professional conferences to share ideas and findings. In their own “scientists’ conference,” the children shared their individual thoughts with their classmates to contribute to the class’s ongoing knowledge refinement -- a reflection of strands three and four.

In one discussion, many children disagreed about what could be a seed and suggested that they plant all the objects they had examined to see if they would grow. To gather evidence, the students planted the small objects (e.g., seeds, shells and small stones) in soil in plastic cups. They watered the objects to see if, and how, they would grow into plants. Over the next several weeks, the students wrote, drew and graphed plant growth in their scientific notebooks, and discussed their findings.

At the same time, Smith and her colleagues were making observations of a different kind -- they noticed development in the children’s ability to think and talk like scientists. They heard comments such as “I have a question for Jennica” and “I think the mold grew because those seeds got more water.” The students noticed when there were anomalies in their data, proposed possible reasons, designed new investigations to test their ideas, used representations to chart the results of plant growth and capably reflected on and explained their findings. These activities reinforced the four strands of knowledge building.

At the end of the unit, the children explained why they thought they were scientists themselves:

  • Because we drew and wrote in our notebooks.
  • Because we had scientists’ conferences and shared our ideas.
  • Because we tested our ideas.
  • Because we figured things out.
  • Because we made charts and graphs.

Smith and her colleagues provide details about how teachers and children worked together to create a “community of knowledge makers,” for whom talk, writing, questions, ideas, investigations and evidence-based explanations were central. They acknowledge that their work is only a beginning.

“We encourage other teachers and researchers to explore the four strands in other grade levels and domains of science,” said Smith. “Our work provides a good example of how teachers and researchers can work together to investigate important questions and produce needed knowledge for teaching and learning science.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 02, 2009