Dan and Julie Graf thought it natural to use their daughter Rachel’s knowledge of solids, liquids, and gases to create a fun travel game for long car trips. They point out the window and she’s quick with the correct category for real and man-made objects. Four-year-old Rachel and her classmates at Faith Child Care and Nursery School in Penfield are learning skills and expanding their world through a science-based curriculum developed by a University of Rochester educator and psychologist.
Lucia French, associate professor at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, designed and expanded her ScienceStart! curriculum for city and suburban children during the past decade. More than $1 million from the U.S. Department of Education provided the opportunity for her to train teachers and support staff, and continue to test and document the curriculum’s effectiveness.
In the past three years, French and her staff have worked with 30 preschool programs, almost 100 teachers, 60 paraprofessionals, and more than 2,250 children in the greater Rochester area. Books, supplies, and equipment valued at $100,000 have benefited area preschools.
“Preschoolers in ScienceStart! classrooms have made large gains in language development, particularly in the acquisition of vocabulary and in their ability to explain,” says French. “They’ve also made significant advancement in their knowledge by using a scientific approach that raises questions and investigates possible answers.”
ScienceStart! is different from programs that scatter science activities throughout a child’s day. It embraces science as an essential part of preschool. Basic scientific terms and concepts are the norm; integrated activities give children the chance to use oral and text-based language for problem solving and other skills.
Karen Richards, who uses ScienceStart! at Faith Child Care and Nursery School, has seen her students thrive on the experiments that test the children’s powers of observation and attempt to look at problems in multiple ways. “I explain that a scientist will try things over and over again so they’re willing to at least try,” says Richards. “Then, I say, ‘now we know.’ ”
Richards, who has been a preschool teacher for 14 years, and others are involved in ScienceStart! professional development workshops as well. “Teachers, administrators, and parents have given us overwhelmingly positive feedback about professional development,” French points out. “We believe those opportunities will impact future classes of children.” Teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, and administrators have participated in approximately 200 hours of workshops. ScienceStart! staff has spent 700 hours in classrooms observing how the curriculum is applied, and another 1,200 hours as on-site support for teachers.
Though her current grant is drawing to a close, French is seeking funding to further develop ScienceStart! and offer it in more preschool programs. In March, she presented information to the National Academy of Science about the relation between science education and language development. She’s also adapted the curriculum for children as young as age 2 who spend their time with family day care providers while their parents work.
Since the 1990s, French has gained financial support from the National Science Foundation, Frontier Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation, A. L. Mailman Family Foundation, Rochester’s Child Fund of the Rochester Area Community Foundation, Halcyon Hill Foundation, and Science Linkages in the Community. She first began investigating the use of science with young children in 1991 when Eastman Kodak Co. offered support for that purpose.