Improving student performance in the classroom will be hard-pressed to succeed nationally unless the youngest children enter school ready to learn. With the support of a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a University of Rochester professor will test and document an integrated preschool curriculum with science as the key to building knowledge and skills.
Lucia French, associate professor at the University's Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, will establish two more sites where children learn in an inquiry-based science environment. The three-year NSF grant acknowledges the importance of the preschool science curriculum and its potential for national significance.
"The daily routine and the classroom layout look like a regular preschool program," says French of her ScienceStart! Curriculum, "but science is the hub around which the teachers and children's activities are organized. Science meets every child's need to understand the world through active investigation."The grant will support writing about the curriculum since its development in Rochester five years ago at Third Presbyterian Church, testing it at other sites, and creating methods to document children's progress while they participated in the project.
French's focus is quite different from early childhood programs that scatter science activities throughout their schedule. As coordinator of The Demonstration Project, Third Church Early Childhood Programs, French's curriculum embraces science-and the cycle of inquiry that advances science-as an essential part of the preschool experience.
For example, teachers using the curriculum develop each week's lesson plan using a "planning wheel" designed by French. At its center is a science activity; around it, teachers describe in writing how that activity will be integrated into play, language arts, social studies, art, and mathematics throughout the week.
French's approach also includes a strong component of parent involvement. Children take home Science ZipKits with open-ended activities for the evening. Then science celebrations are scheduled at school to promote interaction between parents and children as well as family literacy nights designed for reading and working on activities.
Throughout the 1990s, French attracted financial support from the Frontier Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Daisy Marquis Jones Foundation, Halcyon Hill Foundation, and Science Linkages in the Community for her work. The new infusion of NSF funds represents one of the largest grants received by the Warner School.
She first began investigating the use of science with young children in 1991 when Eastman Kodak Co. offered support for that purpose. Later, she helped to establish Third Church's preschool project as a delegate agency of Action for a Better Community's Head Start Program in 1995. The teachers latched on to her ideas and the partnership continued.
French, who earned her doctoral degree at the University of Illinois in developmental psychology, uses a four-step process through which children can organize their thoughts and solve problems. As they work through the process, they can reflect and ask, plan and predict, act and observe, and report and reflect. "Once children have seen with their own eyes and touched with their own hands, they are ready to do something with the information they have," she says.
M. Susan Burns, a professor at George Mason University's College of Education in Fairfax, Va., describes ScienceStart! as "a significant contribution to curricula in early childhood education. When I first heard Lucia French and her teachers present the curriculum," Burns says, "I was excited that children would learn important ways of thinking, but more so that children would be supported in using rich language, and that they had something very interesting to talk about."
In particular, French's approach has been effective for children at risk for school failure. By offering girls and minority students an early and highly positive introduction to science (and also by involving their parents in science activities), the curriculum enhances their future interest in science.
Warner doctoral students Kathleen Conezio, education coordinator for Third Church Early Childhood Programs, and Shira May also will work on the project. The new pilot sites will be located at the Universal PreK program at Greece's Parkland Elementary School and the Universal PreK program at School 5 in the city. In 2001-2002, one or more rural daycare sites will be added.
The Demonstration Project teaches about 36 children who are three or four years old. They attend preschool four days a week, four hours each day. While it is not formally associated with the Warner School, the project serves as a significant site for research.