Christine Howitt is a Lecturer in Science Education at the Science and Mathematics Education Centre at Curtin University of Technology. She has taught and researched in the area of early childhood and primary science teacher education over the past six years.
A number of recent reports provide convincing evidence that science education in our schools is not meeting students’, teachers’ and national needs. Students are not enrolling in science courses or science education courses in sufficient numbers. Appropriately trained teachers of science are in short supply. The science-related background of teachers, particularly at primary and early childhood levels, is inadequate for an increasingly scientific and technological society. The critical shortage of people with science, technology and mathematics knowledge, skills and/or appreciation continues to be a national concern, especially in economic terms (ATSE, 2002; Dow, 2003; Goodrum, Hackling & Rennie, 2001; Harris, Jensz & Baldwin, 2005; Tytler, 2007).
Several reports have recommended the development of action plans to deal with these issues. For example, the Commonwealth has sponsored the initial phase of the development of a National Action Plan for Australian School Science Education 2008–2012 (Goodrum & Rennie, 2007), and the Queensland Government has produced a discussion paper putting forward possibilities for a 10-year plan for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and skills (Department of Education, Training and the Arts, 2007).
Over the past decade, a number of initiatives have attempted to deal with the student-related dimensions of these problems, particularly at upper primary and secondary school levels. The initiatives include Primary Connections, the CASSP, the Creativity in Science and Technology program, SEAR, the ASTA Science Awareness Raising Model, and Scientists in Schools. In addition, resources have been dedicated recently to the development of high-quality, online science and mathematics curriculum content for Australian schools by The National Digital Learning Resources Network.
One area that has received relatively little attention so far is preschool science teaching. It is a significant omission, given the growing importance now being assigned to preschool education as a whole, and also given the potential for science education to connect with young children’s curiosity about the natural world.
Science and early childhood education
Early childhood teachers often lack an appropriate background in science and technology, and often doubt their capacity to teach science effectively (Young & Kellogg, 1993). This lack of confidence leads them to teach science in a very prescriptive manner, if at all (Harlen & Holroyd, 1997). Combined with the limited science teaching materials available at the early childhood level, these problems pose a major impediment for early childhood teachers to be effective in teaching science to their students (see, for example ATSE, 2002; Garbett, 2003; Skamp, 1989; Watters & Ginns, 2000; Watters, Diezmann, Grieshaber & Davis, 2001).
The Collaborative Science Project
To address these concerns, Curtin University of Technology has initiated a project to develop, implement and evaluate various modules on science teaching for pre-service early childhood teachers. The modules will be designed to help them integrate knowledge of science content with their pedagogical skills.
The 18-month project, funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, involves cross-disciplinary collaboration between a range of different professionals working in science or early childhood education. Scientists, engineers and teacher educators will collaborate with a cohort of pre-service early childhood teachers within a science curriculum and instruction unit that forms part of the third year of their Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood). The activities and teaching materials that they develop will be used and evaluated by the students during the unit and during their final teaching 10-week practice. Ongoing evaluation of these modules will also be provided by experienced early childhood teachers and science teacher educators.
Each module of science-related work will be developed around a philosophy that embeds five main principles:
- acknowledgement of the place of young children as natural scientists
- active involvement of children in their own learning, emphasising the place of play, hands-on activities, exploration and questioning
- recognition of the place of a sociocultural approach to children’s learning where context, relationships, culture and activities in which children participate, along with the tools that they use, are seen as a means to developing and understanding children’s ideas
- emphasis on an integrated approach to children’s learning experiences
- the use of different representations within children’s learning.
The template that supports each module includes:
- an introductory core activity that establishes a suitable context
- focus questions relating to the core activity
- a range of follow-up activities related to the core activity
- a list of possible resources
- suggested forms of diagnostic, formative and summative assessment
- questions students may ask about the science associated with the activity, along with answers at an appropriate level for early childhood explanation
- scientific explanations behind the science activities
- suggestions for integrating activities, with an emphasis on literacy.
A major strength of each module will be its adaptive, variable and flexible nature, so that pre-service teachers can use the materials in a manner that suits their particular early childhood context.
Implications of the research for improved science teaching and learning
The major outcome of this research will be a set of tested and evaluated science modules for use in pre-service early childhood science curriculum and instruction units. These modules will include adequate and appropriate science content, pedagogy, activities, assessment and integration to produce teachers with increased confidence and attitudes towards teaching science in the classroom.
Teachers who are appropriately knowledgeable and enthusiastic about science are far more likely to enthuse the children they teach about science. These teachers will also be capable of producing programs and materials to facilitate this teaching and learning. Teachers with an appropriate blend of science content and pedagogical skills can empower young children with scientific understanding and basic scientific processes. This is turn should produce more positive attitudes towards learning science in children that will carry them through their future schooling.
Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) 2002, The Teaching of Science and Technology in Australian Primary Schools, ATSE, Melbourne.
Department of Education, Training and the Arts 2007, Towards a 10-year plan for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and skills in Queensland, Department of Education, Training and the Arts, Queensland Government, Brisbane.
Dow, KL (Chair, Committee for the Review of Teaching and Teacher Education) 2003, Australia’s Teachers: Australia’s Future: Advancing innovation, science, technology and mathematics, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.
Garbett D 2003, ‘Science education in early childhood teacher education: Putting forward a case to enhance student teachers’ confidence and competence’, Research in Science Education, 33, 467–481.
Goodrum, D & Rennie, L 2007, Australian School Science Education: National Action Plan 2008–2012, Volume 1, The National Action Plan, Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra.
Goodrum, D, Hackling, M & Rennie, L 2001, The status and quality of teaching and learning of science in Australian schools: A research report, Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Canberra.
Harlen, W & Holroyd, C 1997, ‘Primary teachers’ understanding of concepts of science: Impact on confidence and teaching’, International Journal of Science Education, 19, 93–105.
Harris, K-L, Jensz, F & Baldwin, G 2005, Who’s Teaching Science, Report prepared for the Australian Council of Deans of Science, Australian Council of Deans of Science, Melbourne.
Skamp, K 1989, ‘General science knowledge and attitudes towards science and science teaching of pre-service primary teachers: Implications for pre-service units’, Research in Science Education, 19, 257–267.
Tytler, R 2007, Re-imagining Science Education: Engaging students in science for Australia’s future, Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.
Watters, JJ & Ginns, IS 2000, ‘Developing motivation to teach elementary science: Effect of collaborative and authentic learning’, Journal of Science Teacher Education, 11, 301–321.
Watters, JJ, Diezmann, CM, Grieshaber, SJ & Davis, JM 2001, ‘Enhancing science education for younger children: A contemporary initiative’, Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 26, 1–7.
Young, BJ & Kellogg, T 1993, ‘Science attitudes and preparation of pre-service elementary teachers’, School Education, 77, 279–291.