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Published in Print: August 1, 2002, as Labs 'R' Us

Labs 'R' Us

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Hundreds of preschoolers conduct experiments in a Chicago effort to get science skills bubbling early.

The skeleton in the lab of the Galileo Math and Science Academy changes his look every season. In the fall, he wears a lab coat. When the weather turns cold, he dons a hat and scarf. When the weather warms up, he just goes naked. But he's always a familiar friend to the 4-year-olds who attend the magnet elementary school on Chicago's Near South Side. "He's the mad scientist welcoming the kids," quips Louisa Economou, who teaches preschoolers about anatomy, botany, and the like.

On a gray May morning, 13 youngsters pass the bony creature, then sit cross-legged on planet-adorned rugs. "Michael, move up," urges Economou. "You, too, Julius." One girl puffs out her chest to show off the bear on her T-shirt. "Oh, that's very nice," says the teacher, trying to sound as if she means it.

Economou is anxious to start today's project. The goal is to have each child line a petri dish with cotton balls, lay in lentils, and add water. In a week, the plantings should yield sprouts, or at least that's the theory. "But what do you think?" asks Economou, who's dressed in a pantsuit and open-toed shoes. "Can you grow a plant without dirt?"

Mikaila, a chatty girl with curly hair, mulls the question over and declares, "The beans are going to need dirt." Meanwhile, David, a shy, sweater-clad boy, decides the beans, sun, water, and cotton should suffice.

Student working on a lab project

Kids at 18 inner-city schools ponder such questions as "Can beans grow without dirt?"
—Gordon Downey



Each kid gets to weigh in as Economou tallies votes, inserting yellow cards into either the yes or no column on a long piece of blue cloth. Soon she's displaying a primitive graph of anticipated results: eight to five in support of dirt-free growth.

This is science for the wee crowd, an attempt to sow seeds of enthusiasm and knowledge for later success in the discipline. It's part of a growing nationwide trend based on the notion that tykes need more than the standard fare—tending a class turtle, for example—to prepare them for an often-difficult subject. In Chicago, the five-year-old effort is run by the Science and Math Excellence Network, a joint project of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center and the public school system. Each year, SAME, which originally served only older kids, reaches some 700 children at 18 inner-city preschool programs; all but two are part of the district.

Like most participating teachers, Economou swears by the effort. "This is the best time for kids to start learning science," she insists. "They are curious and inquisitive, without misconceptions that come later. They are sponges for information, and they can develop habits of observation that lead to higher-order thinking. And then there's the acquisition of vocabulary: When we study animals, for example, we are 'zoologists,' not just 'scientists.'"

Yet some experts argue that exposing developing minds to structured science is a mistake—and not just because it cuts into vital playtime. "Formal science can be frustrating for the very young," warns David Elkind, a child-development professor at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child. "You run the danger of turning kids off."


SAME is the brainchild of Reginald Adams, the longtime community affairs director at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's. In 1992, during a visit to an inner-city public school, Adams discovered a desperately run-down science lab. Having grown up in a poor neighborhood himself, he resolved to help. First he arranged for the hospital and a construction firm to sponsor a major renovation. Then he set out to provide labs at other schools as well as a mobile science unit. Today, with the help of local businesses and other contributors, the project serves students at 43 elementary schools.

The program's leaders inserted the preschool peg in SAME in 1997. Mayor Richard Daley and other city officials had come together for a lab dedication, and Adams got to talking with Cozette Buckney, then Chicago's chief education officer. "Cozette said something about starting all this earlier, and I said, 'Yes!'" Adams recalls. Soon, SAME hired veteran early childhood educator Kati Gilson to run a preschool lab on the Southwest Side. Gilson's salary would be covered by the board of education in an unusual partnership.

At first, Gilson was overwhelmed. She'd taught only a little science before, but she had a degree in agriculture and was anxious to do more. She pieced together a lab from plants and hand-me-down animals. "One of my friend's daughters gave me a pair of iguanas," recalls Gilson. "My next-door neighbor presented me with the water turtle, which another neighbor had found on the street." She relied, too, on a curriculum guide passed along by another educator—and lots of ingenuity. "We took a field trip to see the skating show The Little Mermaid on Ice," she says, "and so I made that the opportunity to study the sea, water, and shells."

From the beginning, Gilson tried to follow her students' natural curiosity. For example, at a loss when an experiment in cultivating celery got the kids wondering how it would grow in space, she e-mailed NASA. (Folks there didn't know, either.) Throughout, Gilson also hewed to the scientific method: suggesting a hypothesis, testing it, and arriving at a conclusion. "That's the way the world of science works," she explains, "and the sooner kids are exposed to it, the better."

Louisa Economou with students

Louisa Economou believes science fosters higher-order thinking in her 4-year-old students.
—Gordon Downey



Today Gilson no longer teaches a class of her own but travels to schools to assist other educators. Together with two colleagues, she also runs teacher-training sessions and sets up the provided equipment, including computers, microscopes, and the ubiquitous skeletons. Some schools place the materials in regular classrooms; others create a separate lab or augment an existing one. How much time is dedicated to science also varies, from one lesson a week to a daily diet.

The tab for SAME's preschool program runs $150,000 a year, a third of which is provided by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Maryland-based philanthropy. SAME leaders say the money is well-spent. Without it, they argue, many low-income kids would not get the leg up in science that private school tots often enjoy.


Teachers in the Chicago program are, in fact, putting SAME resources to good use. Flor Retamal, for example, has set aside an area of her classroom in Jungman School as a "lab." It boasts Myrtle the Turtle and plants, such as caladium, that kids measure to monitor growth. The students also breed and raise goldfish. But Retamal's greatest love is dinosaurs. Instead of just letting youngsters play with the little plastic replicas found in most preschools, Retamal uses detailed, five-foot-long puzzles of the ancient beasts. Kids also classify the animals as herbivores or carnivores. And, as she explains, "We go outside to see how big they could have been: two car lengths, five lengths?"

Lourdes Torres has been equally creative. In her class at the nearby Corkery School, she asks her 3- and 4-year-olds to consider their SAME skeleton. "What would happen if we had no spine or ribs?" she asks. "Would we be like snails, crawling on the floor?" Later, in an experiment that drives home the value of good dental hygiene, Torres has her students pour Coke on eggs. The following day, the kids give the caffeine-stained eggs a proper brushing.

Mostly, these teachers and others hail the SAME program. Still, they face obstacles. Velma Knighton, a Head Start teacher, complains that she's hard-pressed to put her lab to optimal use. "With an a.m. and a p.m. section, my classes run only 2½ hours," she explains. "Between breakfast, circle time, free-choice time, lunch, and music and movement, there isn't time left for much else."

Another obstacle is how easily little kids get distracted, which can make completing a complex task difficult. In Economou's class, for example, the lentil experiment has been going well overall but with a few bumps along the way. For one, Michael, a chunky-cheeked boy, spends some of his time mopping up puddles of water in front of his petri dish. And his classmate Jessica tends to fixate on the cotton balls. "My mom has big ones, and she uses them on my baby brother," she once announced.

Some early childhood experts argue that preschoolers are just too young to handle formal science. Instead, they say, kids should learn about natural phenomena through play: cooking soup, blowing up balloons, and splashing at a water table. Others in the field caution that if teachers do opt for a structured curriculum, it should be kept as simple and concrete as possible. "You must deal with the here and now: How far can you jump, and why do you come down?" suggests Barbara Bowman, who teaches at Chicago's Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development. "Measuring plants is fine. But as soon as you start talking about real science, when you get too sophisticated, young children—who still think a lion lives under the stairs—don't have the capacity to process that."

On the other hand, Lucia French, an early childhood professor at the University of Rochester in New York, says taking advantage of youngsters' natural curiosity is vital. "Young kids are biologically prepared to investigate the world around them," argues French, who heads a preschool science program. And the subject matter, she notes, helps build vocabulary; a group of students in her program posted impressive word gains after just six months.

‘This is the best time for kids to start learning science. They are curious and inquisitive, without misconceptions that come later.’

Louisa Economou,
Teacher

JoAnne Vasquez, a past president of the National Science Teachers Association and longtime primary teacher, also applauds early science: "Kids learn a set of skills—ordering, classifying, seeing patterns, and comparing and contrasting—that sets them up for the thinking they need to do later on." On the lighter side, she adds, "Kids recognize the difference between fact and fiction when a real, live mouse appears in class."

As enthusiastic as many of the SAME teachers are, their measures of success are strictly anecdotal. Sheila Coffin, a professor at Chicago's Roosevelt University who is assessing the program, says data won't be available for another three years. Meanwhile, she notes, teachers seem to be getting as much out of the program as their students. "[They] started out tentatively," she says. "Maybe their concept of science had been planting a geranium that died during the year. Now they're doing lessons on snow and temperature ormagnets that go for days. They've grown as educators."

Even without hard numbers, Reginald Adams has faith in the program he founded. "My mother was a tough lady," he remembers. "Though we lived in poor circumstances, she believed in education. I knew how to read and write before I got to school, and so I came away with a feeling for starting education early. Now scholars will say this or thatabout our program—everybody has his own belief—but I see kids having fun and seeming to learn."

They may also be on their way to becoming research scientists. "When I look at these kids," Adams says, "I see a cure for AIDS or leukemia."

Back at Economou's class a week after the lentil planting, the kids certainly are excited about their experiment. Economou has distributed the petri dishes, and the youngsters marvel at the sprouts emerging from the cotton. A boy looks at his dish and tells his neighbor, Michael, "Mine looks like a forest."

Michael, carefully examining his own creation, declares, "Mine looks like pizza."

"Let's all sit down on the rug," says Economou. "We need to talk about the results, about what happened." The class reconsiders its prediction graph, and the naysayers concede that cotton is a fine germination medium.

Soon the kids are busy creating pictures of their plants, and though a few are easily distracted—Michael, for instance, prefers to render a portrait of his mother—most focus well. One tiny girl with shoulder- length hair draws a perfectly lifelike depiction of her plant, with the sprouts ascending.

"Oh, Rebecca," Economou raves, "I see your plant growing tall. Good job."


Vol. 14, Issue 1, Pages 14-17

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