Pass / Fail

So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

UCLA Preschool and the California Science Center museum help turn kids into 'pre-scientists'

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Science Experiment: One of two stories looking at science in the schools – from pre-K to high school. Click here to read Part 1: RELATED: New science standards hard sell at cash-strapped Sylmar High School (Photos).

When Gay MacDonald came to UCLA in the early 1990s to lead its preschools, the children were doing well at all the things preschoolers do: learning their ABCs and 123s.

Yet MacDonald’s experience in early education taught her that children have vastly more potential for learning than adults believe – and she felt that fact-based standards like learning your ABCs didn’t go far enough. So she set out to revamp them.

As she searched for a theme for the schools on campus, which at the time served 93 infants, toddlers and preschoolers, she chose science.

"We try to create a culture of inquiry and foster asking a question,” said MacDonald, who likes to call her preschoolers “pre-scientists.”

RELATED: New science standards hard sell at cash-strapped Sylmar High School (Photos)

MacDonald, the executive director, now runs three preschools on campus that teach basic scientific concepts, methods and reasoning to the children of UCLA staff and students and neighborhood residents.

On the wall of one of the schools, University Village, the art projects look like those at any other pre-K, except for the big words. A collection of paper-thin coffee filters colored in bright blue and black splotches are titled “absorb.” In that lesson, children watched the paint seep through the coffee filter, then played with other things that “absorb,” like kitchen sponges.

On another wall, aluminum foil bowls are stuck to the wall under a sign reading “evaporate.” The 3 to 4-year-olds had originally filled the bowls with water and put them on a windowsill, checking on them every day and noting observations in journals.

“For a while, of course, the water stayed on the tin foil,” said April Wright, their teacher. The children began to notice that each day there was less water. And she gave them a word for what it meant when the water disappeared.

University Village and the other two UCLA preschools are among a few in Southern California to offer science-based learning. The vocabulary and experimentation may give kids a head start in later grades. Newly released standards for teaching K-through-12 science are based on hands-on learning and testing critical thinking.

MacDonald designed the programs on her belief that the most important thing that children can learn is that they are “learners.”

“It’s not about knowing things, it's about investigating and finding out,” she said. “We love it when teachers don’t know the answer because then they really demonstrate to children [that] it’s about being a learner.”

Literacy, MacDonald says, comes through real-world learning, not rote letter memorization. If children squeal as the paint absorbs through the coffee-filter, they want to be able to write the word “absorb.” Other projects taught the children the meaning of transparent and molecule. (Listen to the audio to hear the pre-scientists in action.)

MacDonald’s not the only one who thinks 4-year-olds can learn science. In 2006, the Jim Henson Co. and KCET approached her Director of Curriculum, Moises Roman, to help shape a science program it wanted to create for preschoolers.

Sid the Science Kid, a popular PBS show, looks a lot like a UCLA preschool class.

Sid and his classmates ask questions and do experiments to learn about why things happen the way they happen. Roman helped them build in science “challenges” that the characters had to solve. Romans says this allowed for the "excitement of  ‘Are they going to be able to fix the challenge?’” that keeps kids riveted.

MacDonald and Roman also joined with cognitive scientists at Rutgers University to publish a science curriculum for preschoolers.

Kim Brenneman, an assistant professor at the university’s Center for Cognitive Science, said research has shown babies can tell the difference between animate and inanimate objects. This simple distinction, she points out, can be expanded on. Helping preschoolers learn why a frog will jump and a statue will not move can open many more doors for basic scientific learning at ages much younger than one might expect.

“The idea here is that we can find out from basic developmental research what children already know and we can build on that,” she said.

The California Science Center also tries to make science learning accessible for children as young as three. Some preschools plan outings to the museum’s preschool rooms, said Nicole Janisse, who manages the children’s “Discovery Rooms.” She said programming for preschoolers is especially hands-on, so that children see science as a tool for learning.

“When kids are really young that’s when they are exploring and making external associations outside of themselves,” Janisse said. Science can help children “explore the world that’s around them.”

The museum’s Family Discovery Room is set up like a home, complete with a backyard where mulching and planting are occurring. Inside there’s a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen, where children learn about, among other things, rodent life. On display in the kitchen are domestic mice and Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

“We have examples of pests and what will happen if you don’t keep your kitchen clean,” she said.

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