Learning & Development Science: Sky high

Teresa Vasconcelos, Nuno Melo, Maria Olivia Mendes and Catarina Cardoso
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The project approach to science learning is explained by Teresa Vasconcelos, Nuno Melo, Maria Olivia Mendes and Catarina Cardoso.

The main argument for including science in early childhood education is that young children love it. They are extremely curious and have a great desire, in fact need, to discover and to understand the world around them. Science answers this need: it nourishes and stimulates the innate curiosity of children, paving the way to explore and discover new things. It is the job of educators to take advantage of the full potential of children at these young ages, creating stimulating environments that enable them to integrate the scientific approach into their daily activities.

Including a scientific approach in early childhood education enables children to acquire important basic knowledge: to discover that plants grow from seeds, some objects float on water while others don't, the moon reflects the light of the sun. But science offers children much more than a body of knowledge. It is also a way to reason and to discover, through developing skills and processes such as questioning, observing, making comparisons, making predictions, reflecting, communicating results. These are important intellectual tools that are not confined to science and make more complex learning possible.

Contact with science also enables the development of traits such as co-operation, a critical attitude, perseverance, and respecting others and the living world, that are crucial for personal and social development. Last but not least, natural sciences are an important context for developing other areas of knowledge such as language, maths or expression.

The Project Approach

During the final year of its course for early childhood teachers, the Escola Superior de Educacao de Lisboa (ESELx) in Lisbon, Portugal, has established a module that takes place before and during teaching practice: Interdisciplinary Project/Integrated Methodologies. This brings together students, co-operating teachers (classroom teachers providing supervision), placement supervisors and other teacher educators from different disciplines to work together on what Lilian Katz has called the 'Project Approach' with children. The module is co-ordinated by Teresa Vasconcelos, a teacher educator knowledgeable about the project approach and its use within the curriculum for early childhood education.

An underlying aim is the development of teacher educators in their own areas of expertise through integrated projects carried out with children as part of teaching practice. These projects mobilise a wide range of disciplines and lead both specialist teacher educators and student teachers to appreciate the importance of an interdisciplinary project approach for early childhood education.

There are other objectives too: for example, to rethink the status of teaching practice as an essential part of professional learning; and to raise the quality of the participating nursery schools via the contribution of 'specialised' educators (language, maths, sciences, and arts).

The Project Approach tries to bring both children and adults closer to John Dewey's 'spiral' metaphor. It is part of the educator's responsibility to see equally to two things: first, that the problem grows out of the conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the range of the capacity of the students; and, second, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas. The new facts and new ideas thus obtained become the ground for further experiences in which new problems are presented. The process is a continuous spiral.

The Project Approach in practice

One project, developed in a nursery school in a deprived area in Lisbon, resulted from a child's question: 'Why are there different phases of the moon?' The children, aged from three to five years, were having a snack and, according to the student teacher Catarina Cardoso, one of the children said, 'This cookie looks like a moon.' Another answered, 'A cookie broken in half sometimes also looks like a moon.' A third child stated, 'Sometimes when the moon is broken in half it looks like a banana.' She saw an opportunity for children to research the different phases of the moon, and the co-operating teacher (Maria Olivia Mendes) was supportive, saying 'The student teacher is a resource for the school; it is important she understands that her commitment will generate meaningful changes in this setting.'

This project was supported by a Natural Sciences educator from ESELx, Nuno Melo. He helped the children to understand the lunar month and prepared a simulation of the different phases of the moon so they would understand the positions of the moon vis-a-vis the sun and earth. Children watched a video of the first men on the moon and made their own space rocket with cardboard boxes, which was put in the school hall so everyone could know about the research.

They also made an astronaut. Having said that 'the man carries those things to breathe, it looks like a backpack', the children understood that 'in order to go to the moon one needs an oxygen bottle ... because on the moon there is no air'. Families also participated in the project. 'It was the father of a little boy who told us there is a moonfish' (in Portuguese, peixe-lua), said one of the children. The children made a Powerpoint slide show to present the project to the families, instead of the traditional events usually held at the end of the school year. On the world map they showed Oceania, where moonfish live, and demonstrated meia-lua (half moon), a position in capoeira, a dance originating from Africa and extremely popular in their neighbourhood. Parents were delighted, and appreciated their children's 'multiple learning'.

The children, the students, the co-operating teacher and the families all gained deeper knowledge from this project. The student teacher provided another resource for the school, her engagement re-energizing the institution and generating significant changes.

But we would like to underline this comment by the Natural Sciences educator from ESELx: 'I would never believe that children could get so deeply engaged in research'. And also what was said, later on, by one of his colleagues during a more systematic evaluation of the module: 'Based upon my participation in the fourth year project, I understood better the content and the ways of working, as well as the best strategies, for the methods courses that I have been teaching in previous years'.

The project approach has enhanced the development of children, educators and families. The teacher educators have educated themselves within an interdisciplinary context. Actual 'learning communities' were established, in which, recalling the words of Roland Barthes, 'interdisciplinarity is a new object that does not belong to anyone'.

Teresa Vasconcelos and Nuno Melo are teacher educators at ESELx, Maria Olivia Mendes is a co-operating teacher and Catarina Cardoso is a graduate student teacher. For further information see: Vasconcelos, T (2007) 'Using the project approach in a teacher education practicum', Early Childhood Research and Practice, vol 9, no 2.

This article first appeared in Children in Europe magazine, issue 16

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