Dialogue on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education


Making Sense of the World

Shirley Malcom

If people are shaped by their experiences—and I believe they are—then all of my experiences as a scientist and as a parent have convinced me that science, mathematics, and technology matter for young children because they matter to young children. As children set the table, match their socks, or reach for their jackets, boots, and mittens on a snowy day; as they learn to cook or play with bath toys, they amass experiences that set them up for the punch line. And the punch line is this: We live in a world that is governed by rules, where some outcomes are predictable, where knowledge can be uncovered, where questions can be asked and answered.

My own children taught me early on that they sought—and would create if necessary—explanations of their world and its workings. They took no part of the material world for granted. What makes it snow? What are clouds made of? My daughter Kelly’s fear of thunder led her to a moment of scientific theorizing when she was four years old. As we were racing home during a storm, she announced from the back seat that she knew why the “clouds bumped into each other and make that thunder.” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because they don’t have any eyes,” Kelly replied.

Child development research tells us that children do, in fact, attribute the characteristics of animate objects to natural phenomena. But what was most fascinating to me was that she found it necessary to articulate a hypothesis. Later experiences would help her refine and develop her theories about thunder, storms, and clouds, but for now she had asked a question that was important to her and had formulated an explanation that would help her make sense of the world.

malcom1.jpg (11023 bytes)Around the time my children began to confront me with their questions and hypotheses, I was asked to make a presentation on science, mathematics, and technology at a meeting of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. To prepare, I began to explore the formal knowledge about child development and the early childhood years in particular. At the same time, I reflected on what I had learned from watching my own and other young children frame their questions about the world and develop their hypotheses. It became clear to me that by their very nature, science and mathematics could offer young children powerful ways of knowing about the world. And that indeed, children’s experiences in their very early years could prepare them for the formal study of science, mathematics, and technology later on. These conclusions led me inevitably to my present role as advocate. My message is this: We need to provide all children with much greater access to the richest variety of experiences that will help them make sense of their world. We must have unbounded expectations for every child.

The Great Equalizers

Some may fear that I am suggesting we impose a rigid, formal curriculum on young children. That is not at all what I have in mind. Instead, we must take advantage of children’s everyday experiences, supplementing them with other experiences that are consistent with what we know about how children develop and what we know about each individual child. The value of such an approach was best described by David Hawkins in an article in the Spring 1983 issue of Daedalus:

“The kind of experiential background in children’s lives before schooling begins or along the way is more uniformly adequate to math and science than to most other school subjects. The poverty or richness of social background matter less here in the early years than in other school subjects. Math and science should therefore be the great equalizers, whether they are now seen to be or not.”

Unfortunately, mathematics and science are often the great separators rather than equalizers. They are the gatekeeper subjects. Without advanced courses in science and mathematics, students are excluded from educational opportunities and experiences that can affect their career aspirations, their role in society, and even their sense of personal fulfillment. With this much at stake, how do we make sure that all young children have the important experiences that will provide them with a strong foundation for future learning? At the very least, it will require much more cooperation among three distinct communities that are just beginning to take account of each other.

Building the Bridges

For those in the K–16 education community, thinking about science, mathematics, and technology in a preschool context is relatively new. Similarly, the early childhood education community is just beginning to consider what content-rich programs would be like at the preschool level. And for those who work in the area of educational equity, there is now a growing awareness that access to thoughtful, engaging experiences in science, mathematics, and technology during the early childhood years can provide both short- and long-term benefits to all children. Connecting these three communities and finding out where their interests intersect are essential first steps.

In the area of informal education—television, museums, science centers, and the like—some programs and initiatives have already begun to make these connections. Museum programs aimed at young children have dealt with a variety of science, mathematics, and technology concepts: hot and cold, big and small, sink and float, machines, numbers, senses, shapes, and so on. Unfortunately, many children have not had an opportunity to take part in these kinds of programs. Much more needs to be done to make such programs accessible to all families.

Television—with its almost universal accessibility—along with toys, games, computer software, films, and books have also had some success in exposing young children to science and mathematics. These few examples serve only to suggest the range of activities, materials, and media that can contribute to a child’s exploration and understanding of the world.

In 1985, the Science Teacher published an article about holistic learning in science by Bob Samples and Bill Hammond. Whether the authors knew it or not, they were actually asking for an inclusion model for school science. That model drew heavily on models that are the norm in early childhood education, where it is widely accepted that each child develops at an individual pace and gains skills and knowledge in a distinct and personal style. The authors were negative about book-bound, lecture-based instruction, and they made this statement: “Learning style researchers are convinced that at any given time half to three-quarters of the students in most classrooms are not learning at near optimum.”

I think it is probably higher than that. Samples and Hammond go on to say, “Only a quarter of our students gain the most from a single approach to instruction. We must try more effective ways to reach all students. It is a kind of myopia to cling to instructional practices that systematically exclude students. It is a kind of immorality to support education practices that systematically exclude most of a learner’s mind.” There is much we can learn from our colleagues in early childhood education.

What Works?

In the mid-1980s the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) collaborated with the National Urban League on a project funded by the National Science Foundation. The goal of the project was to develop model programs for early childhood education in science that could be customized for preschool settings. The models had these constraints: few of the preschool staff had four-year degrees in early childhood education; many had associate degrees; the staff turnover rate was high, as it is in most programs for young children. In other words, we had to design a model that would respond to the realities of the world as it was, not as we wanted it to be. Our challenge was to help the people who were working with very young children to become empowered themselves by their own knowledge of science and the fact that it had meaning in their lives. Until that happened, they were unlikely to engage the children in science, mathematics, and technology.

malcom1.jpg (11023 bytes)These models have also been an influence on AAAS’s Black Churches project. We have found that early childhood education and childcare programs are among those programs most frequently offered by the churches. How do we help churches improve the quality of what they are doing? How do we help their staff develop themselves professionally? We have found once again that it is a matter of enabling individuals to take hold of the science themselves. We engage them with the kinds of strategies that actually work with young children and then show them the science, mathematics, and technology that is present in the early childhood environments they have created. Chances are, there is already a corner for blocks or perhaps a water table in the space. By using these to construct towers, build a big block from several smaller blocks, pour water into containers of different sizes and shapes, or predict how far a ball or toy car will roll on different surfaces, children are able to interact with and learn about the natural world.

Several years ago, I served as co-chair of the Carnegie Task Force on Learning in the Primary Grades. We examined many issues related to children and their well-being, but a pivotal finding of our work was this: For three-year-old children—whatever their situations in life—everything was still possible. But in just a few years time, many would begin to lose ground. How do we support that amazing potential of early childhood? What expectations and outcomes should we have in mind when we talk about preschool education? How specific need we be in setting goals for content and programs? How do we maintain a focus on the development of each individual child while ensuring that all children have access to the kinds of experiences that will prepare them for high achievement in science, mathematics, and technology? Unless we name those experiences, some children will simply not get them.

One goal of the Forum on Early Childhood Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education was to name those experiences. What is it that students need to know and be able to do by the time they get to kindergarten? What experiences can we assume they have had? How can we help provide an opportunity for every child to have those experiences?

Lifting Refrigerators and Learning about Levers

Finally, a story of my other daughter illustrates where such thinking might lead. My husband needed to move the rollers under the refrigerator. He asked our five-year-old for help. “Lindsey,” he said, “I want you to lift the refrigerator.” Lindsey turned to her father, laughed, and said, “Daddy, you’re so silly. I’m too little. I can’t lift a refrigerator. It is too heavy for me.”

Her father went out to the garage and came back with a long-handled shovel. He placed the blade securely under the front of the refrigerator and pushed down on the handle. He called Lindsey over and as they gradually exchanged weight and she put her 40 pounds on the shovel handle, she lifted the refrigerator. Her eyes lit up, her mouth dropped open, and this silly grin came across her face. She had discovered that technology was empowering. We never said the word “lever” to her. We never tried to tell her about fulcrums or anything else. She had found out herself.

When the nation’s governors and President Bush met in Charlottesville for the 1989 Education Summit, the first national education goal they articulated was this: All children will come to school ready to learn. It has taken us many years to learn what “ready” means. It means that children will come to school with loving and caring adults in their lives, with adequate health care and nutrition, and with an entire community of support. But it also means that they must come to school with the experiences that will allow them to reach their full potential and with limitless expectations that they will succeed at the highest levels.


Hammond, B. and Samples, B. (November 1985). The Science Teacher, 52(8):40–43.

Hawkins, D. (Spring 1983). Nature Closely Observed. Daedalus, 112(2).

Shirley Malcom is director of Education and Human Resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Copyright 1999 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)