13 ways to improve science and engineering lessons in the early grades

It's up to district leaders and educators to ensure younger students have the resources they need to excel.
By: | October 26, 2021

Young children can ask sophisticated questions to make sense of the world if they are introduced to engineering and science ideas.

However, from preschool through 5th grade, students do not have sufficient learning experiences in the two subjects, says a new report, “Science and Engineering in Preschool through Elementary Grades,” by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

“Preschool through 5th grade is a unique and critical window for kids to engage with science and engineering, and it’s clear we need policies that can give all students access to this opportunity,” said Elizabeth Davis, professor at the University of Michigan School of Education and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “To make sure every student in the U.S. receives their best shot at excelling in these areas and experiences the joy and wonder of science and engineering, we need to improve curriculum materials, design effective learning environments, and support our educators with resources and meaningful learning opportunities.”

Surveys have shown that science and engineering are not prioritized in the early grades, particularly when compared with English language arts or mathematics. And this disparity is often exacerbated in under-resourced schools, the report says.

To reverse this trend, elementary and preschool administrators should examine the time and resources allocated to science and engineering and then develop instructional schedules that focus frequently and consistently on the two subjects.

Administrators should also ensure the subjects are getting sufficient fiscal and material resources and that there is coherence in instruction from preschool through fifth grade.

To better engage students, teachers should design instruction around interesting and relevant phenomena that spark students’ natural curiosity and give them opportunities to make decisions and solve problems.

The report offers several other recommendations for improving science and engineering in the early grades:

  1. Curriculum developers should work with researchers, teachers, administrators, families and community leaders to design coherent and equitable science and engineering instruction that is based on exploration and investigation and that prioritizes children’s interests.
  2. Teachers should integrate science and engineering into other subjects to maximize instructional time effectively.
  3. Teachers should create learning experiences that establish norms for a caring, collective culture and position children as active thinkers and doers who are able to collaborate with classmates.
  4. Teachers should seek out opportunities to build their expertise in working toward equity and justice in science and engineering instruction.
  5. Teachers should use formative assessments that gather multiple forms of evidence to informing instruction.
  6. State and district leaders and researchers should work together to investigate how alignment and coherence support children’s learning of science and engineering from preschool through elementary.
  7. Administrators should also analyze whether they are hiring qualified and diverse teachers to teach science and engineering and then ensure that teachers are receiving robust professional development.
  8. District leaders should also provide professional learning for principals and administrators who serve as instructional leaders in science and engineering.
  9. State and district leaders should conduct robust evidence-based reviews when choosing curricular programs.
  10. State and district leaders should ensure that every school has the materials and resources needed for engaging in science and engineering teaching that prioritizes equity and justice.