Newswise — Students in the United States continue to lag behind many of their global counterparts in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), which is a trend that the White House hopes to soon reverse. The “Educate to Innovate” campaign, launched by President Obama in November, aims to boost the participation and performance of students, especially those in middle and high school, in science and math.
Child development expert Joyce Duckles, a Ph.D. candidate in human development at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, says that we need to reach kids even earlier, before the middle and high school years, and change their perceptions of science before it is too late. Research from the United Kingdom and United States suggests that interests in pursuing science and attitudes toward science are largely formed by age 14. According to a 2004 Boston College study on mathematics and science, international assessments of science achievement among fourth- and eighth-grade students, across 49 countries, have documented that in addition to school instruction and curriculum, student engagement with and achievement in science is related to how children spend their time out of school and children’s attitudes toward science, including self-confidence in learning science and the value placed on science.
Duckles proposes that the “Educate to Innovate” campaign needs to focus more on the early years and families. “By focusing more on middle and high school kids, we are already missing the boat because we are saying that this is where science starts,” she explains, “when in reality attitudes toward science, perceptions of science, and identities —where children start to see themselves as people who do science—begin much earlier and in home contexts.
Duckles, who believes that we need to look at young children differently, explains that our view of the child has been very limited when in fact young children, even preschoolers, are able to do science. “Children actively explore their worlds and create and refine their own theories,” says Duckles. “Babies build theories about the world around them when they simply drop a plate over and over again from their highchair.” She challenges us to move beyond this “deficit” view of the young child as someone who can’t think abstractly and can’t do science.
Many early science experiences, when attitudes toward science are being formed, take place outside of school contexts, in homes and communities. Duckles also encourages both teachers and policymakers to increase their understanding of home science practices across different families, communities, and cultures.
Doing science takes many forms—it’s not just the way we do it in school. Duckles, who has worked with nearly 20 urban and rural families and watched them do science at home as part of her dissertation research, explains that parents are already doing amazing things with kids at home. “Programs and policies need to bring value to and capitalize on these family learning experiences that children bring to school with them rather than focusing only on the current ways of doing school science,” she says.
She also believes that we need to look at science differently. “Many people don’t realize that science is already nestled in our everyday language and lives,” says Duckles. “Our lives are influenced by science in so many ways, from the production and distribution of foods to issues of health and medicine to the quality of our air and water. Part of the problem is that we make science this special thing that is only for the elite, and as soon as we do that we start to marginalize people and turn kids off to science at an early age.”
According to Duckles, when we talk about creating scientific literacy among our children, there are several goals to consider. For some kids, these goals may include pursuing science in high school and college, doing “school science.” Obama’s initiative is aimed at “championing” the cause of science and math and producing a perceptible rise in test scores. She encourages expanding the “Educate to Innovate” goals to include creating more scientifically literate young children, adolescents, and adults who recognize the relevance of science to their everyday lives and encourage a public understanding and engagement in science that reaches far beyond the boundaries of schools.
Duckles, who received degrees in child development from Connecticut College and special education from New York University, has worked in a variety of urban and rural preschools. She currently focuses her own research on early science learning at home, how young children do science, and the unique “co-learning” that takes place when parents and children explore science together.
For more information about the “Educate to Innovate” campaign, visit http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/president-obama-launches-educate-innovate-campaign-excellence-science-technology-en.