Hand-wringing about the low science achievement of American students is a favorite activity of policymakers, business leaders, and others worried about economic potential and job growth in this country. Educators also are worried about the leaky pipeline to higher levels of science achievement and potential STEM jobs—particularly among underrepresented student groups, such as girls and nonwhite students. Where are the students with the ability and interest to pursue academic coursework in the sciences? Why are so few pursuing sciences at our colleges and universities? Two recent studies hold some answers and point to possible solutions.
One study, released by Education Development Center (EDC) and SRI International earlier this year, suggests that parents of young children are much less confident supporting their child’s science learning than they are supporting other academic subjects. An earlier study, released by Michigan State University last summer, indicates that teachers of young children also lack the knowledge to support early science learning. Together, these findings suggest a perfect storm for young children who are underprepared, underinformed, and underexposed to foundational science concepts, language, and experiences.
As a researcher who spoke to many parents for the most recent of these two studies, I began to wonder: Is this situation different from that of past generations of children, parents, and teachers? After listening closely to what parents had to say, I believe it is. We have created a slowly escalating science crisis in this country through narrow education policy, limited funding, low regard for teacher professional development, and a lack of respect for early-learning professionals. The result is a generation of parents who have not benefited from the early-learning experiences in science that would help them shape their own children’s science understanding.
Like educators, parents need guidance on how to engage their children in science activities and exploration."
Our study included a nationally representative survey of nearly 1,500 parents of 3- to 6-year-old children, a series of focus groups with 65 parents, and home visits with 11 families in three different communities. Nearly every parent we heard from—across economic, education, and ethnic differences—wanted to do and discuss science with their children, but they often lacked the background knowledge or experience to do so. Parents told us their older children in elementary school never came home with science homework and rarely did science at school. Many parents had little or no memory of their own science experiences as young students.
It is no coincidence that many of these parents are among the first wave to be influenced by No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that emphasized literacy and mathematics testing as measures of school and districtwide accountability. Because the law prioritized reading and math, schools—especially those strapped for cash—focused their instruction on those subjects, often at the expense of instruction in other areas. NCLB may no longer be the law of the land, but it has had a lasting effect on how families of preschool-age children engage with science today. Regardless of how the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, may change science instruction in the classroom, it cannot address the existing gap in science experience among families and parents of young children.
This concern is compounded by other challenges to science learning: a lack of qualified middle and high school science teachers, limited funding for up-to-date textbooks and classroom supplies for science activities, and cutbacks in class field trips.
Informal science learning can be just as challenging outside of the classroom. Children and families in some communities lack access to safe outdoor play areas that could offer hands-on learning. At the same time, many discovery centers, zoos, and science museums continue to raise admission prices to offset decreases in local, state, and federal funding. All of these factors have contributed to the generation of parents our research has found lack the tools and information to support their own young children with a solid foundation for early science learning.
If we want to change this picture, we—anyone who believes that every child has a right to an equal start in education—must begin at the beginning: young children, their teachers, their families, their pre-schools, and their communities. Children have a natural curiosity about the world around them. To ensure parents and educators are able to join them in wondering about and exploring new ideas, we must give children more, not fewer, opportunities to learn. Educators require professional development tailored to the developmental levels of the children they teach. They need resources that support a whole-child approach to learning, that don’t fracture learning experiences into isolated categories like math or reading, but instead recognize that learning happens across boundaries and in real-life settings. Early-learning settings need the resources and guidance to engaging whole families in learning experiences that can open doors to the natural and designed world.
Parents and caregivers play a substantial role in supporting and encouraging their young children’s learning experiences. Like educators, parents need guidance on how to engage their children in science activities and exploration. Reassuring parents and caregivers that they don’t need to hold the answers to children’s questions is the first step toward encouraging children to ask “why” and then begin the journey of finding the answer.
The educational media community can also help parents foster their children’s interest and competency in science. Commercial and nonprofit developers of videos, games, and apps aimed at young children have broad and deep reach into their homes and lives. Young children spend hours watching videos and playing games. These activities could offer an opportunity to engage children in thinking about, watching, and doing science. They could help to expand awareness of what science is, how it can be found everywhere, and what it looks like when all kinds of people do it.
If we are serious about supporting a new generation of science learners, there is also a role for local community, state, and federal governments to play. We must support access to science experiences through affordable fees to museums, zoos, and learning centers, as well as public transportation to these places serving all communities. Adequate funding for summer and after-school programs, science camps, science competitions, and field trips is also critical.
There will always be some number of children who succeed in science, either because of their advantages or despite their disadvantages. We can choose to accept this status quo or we can expand these opportunities by laying the foundation for a scientifically knowledgeable generation. Let’s begin by ensuring that all parents, caregivers, and educators have the support to foster science thinking and doing for children of all ages.