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Inside Carnegie Science Center’s Science Stage, educator Emily Anderson asks a group of young children: Can everyone make a sound? With great enthusiasm, about a dozen preschoolers clap, stomp their feet, and talk.
It’s the beginning of a science lesson on vibrations and sound waves. The kids put their hands on their throats to feel the vibrations their voices make. To mimic sound waves, they move their arms like waves in the ocean, both big and small. At Anderson’s prompting, the pint-sized scientists give their opinions on which animals—the duck or the kitten? —make a higher-pitched sound. With the beat of a drum, they explore which barrel—tall or short?—sounds lower. Each child experiments with the sounds that can be made using large, brightly colored, flexible plastic tubes.
Anderson doesn’t give away the answers. She lets the children come up with and explore their own ideas, gently guiding the conversation. By the time the lesson is in full swing, even a child who reluctantly entered the auditorium is so enthralled she wants to be sure her dad gets his turn with one of the plastic tubes.
The fun is all part of the Science Center’s Munchkin Mondays, a drop-in program for early learners ages 2–6 and their grown-ups offered weekly in early fall and late winter, with sessions starting back up again in January. It gives young children a chance to experiment and helps their caregivers identify easy ways to engage them in simple and fun science activities at home. No water table at home? No problem. A bathtub and a few plastic containers can also make a great science lab.
“We know that early STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] exposure and the ability to express your curiosity, explore, ask questions, and find the answers are all really supportive of later success in these subjects,” says Wendy Brenneman, manager of early childhood STEM initiatives at the Science Center.
In fact, without this practice, young learners may grow to lack confidence in their abilities in math and science as early as kindergarten—believing the subjects too difficult and their own abilities not up to task, says Brenneman. It’s a finding echoed by other leading voices for early childhood education.
“We absolutely need STEM from the very beginning,” says Cara Ciminillo, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). “It just reaffirms the natural way children learn, which is through observation, exploration, discovery, investigating, and constructing meaning.”
According to STEM Starts Early, a 2017 report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America, the STEM approach has a big payoff. A growing number of studies show a correlation between early experiences with STEM subjects and later success in those subjects or in school generally.
Carnegie Science Center has long been the region’s leader in informal science education, each year serving some 500,000 on-site visitors and an additional 160,000 children in a five-state region through its Science on the Road program.
“We absolutely need STEM from the very beginning. It just reaffirms the natural way children learn, which is through observation, exploration, discovery, investigating, and constructing meaning.”
– Cara Ciminillo, executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC)
In addition, the Science Center spent five years prototyping a STEM engagement program especially for early learners. Known as PNC Grow Up Great with Science, it allowed the Science Center to reach more than 5,000 preschoolers in some 130 Head Start classrooms in Pittsburgh Public Schools and Westmoreland County. Funded by the PNC Foundation, it focused on enhancing inquiry-based science education by helping grown-ups of early learners—their educators and caregivers—feed students’ natural curiosity for science.
Through plenty of hands-on experience, the Science Center recognizes that what the littlest learners need to successfully grow STEM skills is stimulating environments, prepared teachers, and engaged families. So, late last year, it launched an Early Childhood STEM Center, part of its award-winning Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development, to serve as a regional and national model of excellence.
“Our goal is to advance the field of early STEM education,” says Jason Brown, senior director of science and education at the Science Center. “Part of achieving this is sharing some of our lessons learned with other science centers and preschools serving early learners and their families.”
Growing up with science
Sally McCrady, president and chair of the PNC Foundation, has seen important changes in how STEM is taught to preschoolers as a result of the Science Center’s work in Head Start classrooms. One important change: the addition of family nights that make clear that caregivers, not just teachers, have a stake in nurturing a child’s natural curiosity.
As educators learned how to integrate STEM into their lessons, McCrady began seeing classrooms full of science instead of classrooms with an isolated science corner. She found children excited about predicting, for example, how tall the plants they were growing from seeds would be. “You began to see that these lessons unfolding in the classroom were not ‘one and done’ and were happening over time,” she says.
“Working with the Science Center really helped open my eyes to new possibilities. Science doesn’t have to be hard. You can look at simple things in nature. You can find science happening in everyday occurrences.”
– Flo Monroe, teacher at Pittsburgh Conroy Early Childhood Center
Kim Russo Joseph, program officer for Pittsburgh Public Schools’ early childhood education programs, says the district’s teachers now not only teach more science, technology, and math lessons, they have more of the essential materials needed—such as magnets and magnifying glasses—to spark student interest.
A key element of a successful pilot by the Science Center in partnership with the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center was science toolkits developed by the Science Center. These enhanced science resources were coupled with professional development for teachers and science nights for families as a way to connect classroom and home learning. This concept was replicated in the $6 million PNC Grow Up Great with Science, through which the PNC Foundation went on to fund programs in an additional seven states and the District of Columbia.
“I think the kids definitely learn more, and they build a lot of the background knowledge they might not have had otherwise,” Joseph says, noting that those who had more preschool STEM did better on state tests in third grade than those who didn’t.
Surveys taken by classroom teachers before and after Grow Up Great with Science showed significant improvements in science knowledge and confidence among teachers. The number of families doing science experiments at home with their children also increased.
Flo Monroe, a teacher at Pittsburgh Conroy Early Childhood Center in the city’s Manchester neighborhood, was among those who worked with the Science Center to design lessons for preschool classes. She says children naturally love science, particularly anything that uses cause and effect or that gives them a chance to take care of something. Her preschoolers grow plants from beans, recording progress with drawings in a journal. On outdoor walks, they stack leaves and then check the next day to see if the wind has scattered them. There’s even a simulated rain cloud experiment involving shaving cream and blue dye.
“Working with the Science Center really helped open my eyes to new possibilities,” says Monroe. “Science doesn’t have to be hard. You can look at simple things in nature. You can find science happening in everyday occurrences.
“I empower my students to be problem solvers and not to have to rely on adults to always give them the solutions.”
The Science Center’s activities for preschoolers build on what little ones do naturally.
“Zero to 5 is when natural curiosity hits its peak,” says the Science Center’s Brenneman. “That’s why babies knock things off tables. OK, a cup fell off the table. Will the spoon fall off the table? Everything they do is all about experimentation. It’s important to be able to capture that curiosity while it’s at its peak.”
This spring the Science Center’s in-house design and fabrication team will transform its fourth-floor gallery designed especially for young learners into a nature-inspired space dubbed the Little Learner Clubhouse, Powered by PNC Grow Up Great!
The newly refreshed gallery will include water play—a perennial favorite—as well as a tree to gather beneath, picnic tables where families can do activities together, a slate wall for finger painting with water, and a ball factory reimagined as a tomato stand.
Its design incorporates the latest research on how children learn, says Brown. For example, rather than learning math by itself, children instead learn math in combination with a variety of subjects. So, if a 3-year-old is exploring the tomato-colored balls, they’re not just counting them, he says, “they’re learning about color, shapes, and language skills.” Young learners will also drive their own learning by choosing where they go and how they experience the exhibit, says Brown.
The Science Center couldn’t do the work it does without foundation and federal support. Since 2009, the PNC Foundation has donated or pledged about $2 million to the Science Center. Other contributors to early learner initiatives include the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Sprout Fund, and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.
In late October, The Heinz Endowments approved a $200,000 grant for a dedicated Pittsburgh Public Schools Head Start classroom at the Science Center. Scheduled to open in time for the 2018-19 school year, it represents a game-changing opportunity, says Brown.
“It’s a partnership ripe for deeper collaboration between Science Center educators and Head Start teachers, with the goal of making science meaningful and fun for kids. Not only will we help provide a quality, robust science curriculum, but now these educators and students will have ready access to a giant sandbox to supplement that curriculum,” says Brown, referencing the Science Center’s on-site exhibits and activities. “To my knowledge, no school has a science facility or material like we have here at the Science Center.”
That collaboration was already at work inside Monroe’s classroom during a recent autumn visit by Dani Boyd, early childhood education coordinator at the Science Center. After reading with them a story all about robots, the children had a chance to build their own by connecting cubes, exploring which cubes had an on-off switch, a movement sensor, a light, or wheels, and then observing what happens when the cubes are in different arrangements.
“Zero to 5 is when natural curiosity hits its peak. Everything they do is all about experimentation. It’s important to be able to capture that curiosity while it’s at its peak.”
– Wendy Brenneman, manager of early childhood STEM initiatives at the Science Center
“Let’s turn it on and see what it does,” says Boyd, enthusiastically, as she lets each child take a turn building and seeing what did—or didn’t—work.
When lights flash, 3-year-old Emanuel Rainey exclaims, “I did that!”
Those feelings of excitement and competence are duplicated by students in other Science Center programs. In addition to offering Munchkin Mondays and fostering science in preschools, the Science Center’s Science on the Road program takes pre-K programs to schools in five states—with topics as far-ranging as bubble science to bugs.
The Science Center also trains the trainers by offering professional development—both at the Science Center and in schools—to give early childhood educators the time and the inspiration to brainstorm and develop fun, inquiry-based science activities for their classrooms. On a future wish list is expanding the Carnegie STEM Excellence Pathway to include preschool programs. The Pathway is a self-evaluation process the Science Center developed with schools to help them measure and improve their efforts in STEM education. It currently has 259 Pathway Partner schools and school districts signed up nationally, impacting more than a million students.
Meanwhile, in Homewood, the Science Center is collaborating with five other community organizations on PNC Foundation-funded Buzzword Pittsburgh, which helps young children and their families expand their vocabulary skills by encouraging play that includes math, science, and art.
As part of Buzzword, a room at Pittsburgh Crescent Early Childhood Center is filled with science and math activities for preschoolers to explore, including magnetic, colorful shapes used to build towers on a light board, large foam blocks, a sensory table, and a fish tank.
Young learners choose what they want to explore and don’t run out of things to try. Some want to share the fun. Four-year-old Makeyah Beatty, busy with her own experiment of dropping three balls into two clear tubes, looks up and exclaims, “Watch this!”
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