Good science education at the earliest grades is supremely important, but in most classrooms it gets short shrift. Studies have found that children in kindergarten are already forming negative views about science that could cast a shadow across their entire educational careers. When researchers interviewed kindergartners from typical classrooms, barely a third of the children showed any knowledge of science, whether from school or other sources. Many children said that science was for older kids and adults, not kindergartners like them. They talked of science being about magic potions or dangerous chemicals; they said science is hard, science is not interesting, and “I am not good at science.” Ask a room of five-year-olds to draw a scientist, and you will likely get lots of pictures of white-coated men in laboratories. Furthermore, even before first grade, fewer girls than boys say they like science.

It is perilous to generalize about anything in the U.S. education system—quality varies enormously from classroom to classroom—but science has long been a poor stepchild to mathematics and reading. One report noted that science instruction in the early grades “occurs sporadically and rarely engages children in practices that encourage rigorous and reflective science learning.” Science is high on the list of subjects that early-grade teachers feel ill prepared to teach. A 2009 study found that Head Start children in Florida ended their pre-K year with significantly lower readiness scores in science than in any other domain.

Of course, teachers need to make difficult trade-offs in the classroom, where many worthy subjects compete for precious little time. If more science is to be taught in kindergarten, what should be removed to make way for it?

Maybe nothing. Educational psychology researchers at Purdue University have developed an approach for teaching science in kindergarten that integrates it with language. The combination not only makes science instruction more appealing to teachers who are very mindful of language arts core curriculum requirements. It also enhances language learning by providing situations in which written language is used for a genuine purpose—recording and reporting predictions and observations—instead of a task devoid of any real context. And the kindergartners delight in learning words they would usually never encounter in kindergarten lessons, such as “excrete” (even if they cannot always spell them correctly).

The Purdue approach, the Scientific Literacy Project (www.purduescientificliteracyproject.org), introduces children to the most fundamental idea—that science is about carefully conducted inquiry to learn about the world—and shows them that everyone can do science. The lessons do not depend on expensive equipment or the latest in animations and computer games. Low-tech methods suffice, including experiments as simple as seeing if salt will dissolve, reading well-chosen nonfiction books—which many adults mistakenly imagine to be inappropriate or uninteresting to such young children—and maintaining individual science journals.

The researchers found that students participating in their project showed significant gains relative to those taking traditional classes. The kindergartners readily developed skills related to asking questions, conducting observations and experiments, drawing conclusions and sharing their findings—and had tremendous fun along the way. The project showed its worth for children of diverse ethnic and social backgrounds, and, most interestingly, it eliminated the gender gap in attitudes. A group at the University of Illinois at Chicago developed a similar project—Integrated Science-Literacy Enactments (www.uic.edu/educ/ISLE/)—for grades 1 through 3.

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An emphasis on “inquiry science” has long been advocated by the National Research Council, whose national science education standards stress science as inquiry and grasp of a few fundamental concepts, ahead of the more traditional focus on a wide smattering of content knowledge (see tinyurl.com/inquirysci). The approach does, however, depend on the instructors understanding how to carry out inquiry-based lessons effectively. The teachers need training in how to teach science. It is not enough to give them courses to bolster their science content knowledge—or to fast-track science graduates into teaching with insufficient schooling in the science of how children learn.

Children are natural scientists: not only are they inquisitive and energetic, but they have an instinct for controlled experimentation. The goal of science education at the earliest levels should be to encourage and refine children’s innate love of exploring the world around them and to help that enthusiastic behavior grow into true scientific literacy.