Start Early. Start well.

October 09, 2017

Professional Learning Institute Focuses on Supporting Scientific Learning in Early Childhood

Omaha, Neb. — Nurturing children’s natural curiosity about the world around them to support their learning and development was the focus of the first institute in the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan “Professional Development for All” 2017-18 series Oct. 5 and 7 in Omaha.

More than 200 teachers, community-based early childhood educators, and others who serve young children in the metro area took part in the event, entitled “Children as Scientists: Scientific Inquiry for Every Child.”

Developed by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the free professional development series is designed to introduce leading-edge research and innovative practices to those who work with young children and families, and give early childhood professionals the chance to come together and learn from each other.

Scientists From the Start

Dr. Daryl B. Greenfield, professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Miami, said in his keynote address Oct. 5 that children start off in life as scientists. Research presented at a 2016 White House summit on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in early childhood indicates that as early as infancy children start developing and testing hypotheses for how the world around them works, he said.

“That all begins in the first year of life,” Greenfield said. 


PowerPoint Presentations 
Video of Keynote Presentation
Video Q&A with Daryl Greenfield

He said child researcher Michelle Chouinard found in a 2007 study that children ages 1 to 5 ask their parents over 100 questions per hour on average. As parents know well, children will persist with their questions until they get an answer.

Greenfield said parents and educators would be wise to not always supply an answer—“they (children) gain one fact” and the interaction shuts down. Instead, adults can respond with other questions, and those back-and-forth exchanges help children develop a deeper understanding of the topic, he said.

Science learning helps children’s development in many areas: language and literacy, early math, social and emotional development, physical development and health, creative arts, language acquisition.

“Science involves all of these areas while simultaneously drawing upon young children’s natural curiosity and motivation to make sense of their world,” he said.

These skills that children pick up while doing science promote school readiness and apply to lifelong learning. So why is there so little science in early childhood? Greenfield says some educators believe the myths that children will find science hard or boring, or that they’re not knowledgeable enough themselves to teach science.

“Science is a process for answering questions,” he said. “This can be done together with your students.”

A framework for early science education

Greenfield says a conceptual framework that provides a coherent, consistent approach to science education has been gaining favor across the nation. In fact, he said Nebraska approved such a framework in September. This “three-dimensional” approach—which is not a defined curriculum, he emphasized—involves practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas.

Practices include:

Making observations
Asking questions and defining problems
Making predictions
Developing and using models
Planning and carrying out investigations
Using math and computational skills
Documenting, analyzing, and interpreting data
Constructing explanations and designing solutions
Communicating information

“These are behaviors that scientists engage in to explore and develop knowledge,” he said.

Crosscutting concepts are big ideas that help scientists connect knowledge from various areas to draw conclusions and create a coherent view of the world. They include:

Cause and effect
Scale, proportion, and quantity
Systems and system models
Structure and function
Stability and change

Disciplinary core ideas take in physical science, earth and space science, life science, and engineering, technology, and the application of science.

“Science opportunities are everywhere,” Greenfield said. “You don’t have to have a canned curriculum. Science is about the world you live in. You can make it highly relevant to children’s interests, their abilities, their context, and their culture.”

Other presenters included Maegan Heimes, birth through age 3 master teacher for Educare of Omaha at Kellom Elementary; Kelly Jones and Michelle Sullivan, ages 3 to 5 master teachers at Educare; Wendy Badders, Heather Dreibus, Katherine Holt, Laura Strubbe, and Dan Sitzman, science instructional coaches for Omaha Public Schools; and Dr. Anne Karabon, assistant professor of education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Saturday’s session included an additional keynote speaker, Christine M. McWayne, professor and director of early childhood education at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.

Reactions From Institute Participants

Educators left the institute feeling energized.

“I loved it,” said Sarah Ravenberg, lead teacher in the infant room at the James R. Russell Child Development Center at Creighton University. “I loved that our keynote speaker emphasized so strongly that babies need to learn this, because a lot of times you hear they can’t understand this. But giving them the language, asking them questions, if we start at that age, it just propels them further and further into becoming critical thinkers.”

Julie Humphrey, youth and family services manager at the Omaha Public Library, said she looks forward to the PD for All institutes.

“These are great informational sessions,” she said. “Since we provide a lot of programming for kids birth through all ages, this is a way for us to find ways to incorporate great ideas into our current programming and possibly offer some different options in the future.”

Upcoming Institutes

Other upcoming institutes in the 2017-18 series include "Children as Authors: Guiding Children on the Pathways Toward Strong Writing" (Nov. 30, day and evening sessions); "Children as Mathematicians: Early Math That Matters the Most" (Jan. 25 or 27); "Children as Researchers: Reading to Learn Can Start Early" (March 1 or 3); and "Children as Expressive Artists: Integrating the Arts as a Tool for Learning" (date TBA). 

Scroll to top