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  • Mallory Foster

Five small steps toward science literacy

I post a lot about emergent literacy - HG's due date was smack in the middle of my AMAZING emergent literacy class at UNCG and this class has served me so much as an educator, mom and educator of educators. When we look at literacy emerging and take an already ready approach, the way we watch kiddos in our care develop shifts. I notice smaller moments - the slight differences in sounds HG makes that are her new words, the confusions students have when words are too similar in sound but not in meaning, etc - than I would have without this class. However, what originally got me hooked on literacy in general was science literacy, so I'm getting back to my roots today! And, I want to think more about how science literacy is also emergent.

Students drew what happened in their beakers and recorded pH changes in their packets in this lab about ocean acidification.

What is science literacy and why does it matter? I think as teachers of older kiddos we often have an "aha" moment when we realize what we're about in the classroom. I LOVE the content I got to teach as an Earth and Environmental Science teacher, but I knew not all of my students would pursue degrees in science. Learning for learning's sake is great and all, but most 15 year-olds are only going to be motivated by that for so long. My "aha" moment was when I realized that my bottom line was that I wanted my students to be fearless question-askers and wonderers. My students expected me to give them answers. I expected them to work their butts off to understand tough concepts, to think critically, to be able to look at a medicine label, a news article, an ingredient list, a politician's campaign and dig in. The middle ground was to get comfortable with asking questions and looking for answers. This is something that at least in my district we were teaching out of our kiddos. Spend time with a 3 or 4 year old and try to answer all of their "why" questions without going a wee crazy :). And this, the ability to ask questions and to know how to dig in and try to answer those questions, is science literacy. If you want a nice formal definition, check out PISA's here (be ready for sciencey jargon) (Side note: American's do notoriously poorly compared to other nations in the area of science literacy - you can see some of that info here). To me, the skills students develop as we foster their science literacy skills are important life skills - such as collaboration, critical thinking, curiosity, and so much more. Additionally, the road to science literacy involves hands-on, engaging learning that hooks kids on learning (so maybe they'll stick with learning for learning's sake longer later :). And, careers in STEM fields are growing, so we are setting students up with rich career prospects when we encourage science literacy. There's a lovely quote from a child development researcher and her colleagues, "It is not that children are little scientists but that scientists are big children" (Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 1999 & UC Berkley's Understanding Science). The work of children, playing with sounds, ideas, objects, emotions, is science - so how can we let that emerge and bloom as our children and students grow?


^Peg Person of Dr. Mae C. Jemison, small people problem solving - do we get in the car or get the bunny?, go outside! (our favorite way is to go to #tinkergarten), and me measuring and noting strike and dip.

  1. Go outside. While our build environment is phenomenally rich with creations due to science, when we step outside we often find an easier hook to our wonderings. Why is the sky blue? How does the car go? What happens to this mud if I stab it? What floats on the water? Why are all those trees dead? While these questions have complex answers, they are also a bit easier to dig into with younger kiddos. With our older kiddos, returning to nature and stepping away from screens and simulations of science lets them wonder for themselves rather than regurgitating someone else's wonderings. This does not have to be big. One time, a pipe on our campus burst and cause some weird erosion and deposition. We simply walked up the hill to look at the unexpected pile of sand, took some notes, and thought about how it got there.

  2. Invite questions. Questions are the root of discovery. I spent the first two weeks of each semester with my students digging in to an article called "In Praise of Hard Questions" by Tom Siegfried about how what science needs is a good question, one worthy of answering, that hooks us long enough to do the hard work of discovery. We kill kiddo's questions very often, sometimes without noticing, often out of what we think is necessity. As a teacher, when I embraced the idea that 80% of the material taught well is better than 100% taught poorly, I found time to sit with kid's questions - and often, these questions would relate to the content we were condensing. Allowing time for questions ensured that students got it, or at least, that the student and I got what the student didn't get so we could work through it. One of my assessments was to ask a question you were wondering about because of the unit and start to answer it. A lower risk activity we did was to teach each other to play the game Rush Hour on the computer using only questions. We have to work our question asking brain muscles with our big kids if we don't let them ask questions when they are younger (and the social pressure of looking stupid has to be overcome too). As a parent of a pre-verbal kiddo, I have to predict HG's questions - like, "How do I hang up the rag if I'm too short to reach the hook?" or "What's that noise?". That forces me to slow down, which I'm hoping will be good practice for being patient with all the "Why's" and "What if's" that come in a few years :).

  3. Learn about scientists. Just yesterday I painted a peg doll to look like Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first Black American woman into space. As I was looking up images, I learned she also has degrees in chemical and biomedical engineering (and more...), served in the Peace Corps, has taught environmental studies courses, and has danced most of her life. All I remembered about her was that she was an astronaut. When we simplify scientists to white men exploding things or to just their key achievements, we set our kids and students up for disappointment about what science is. Science is amazing. The work of a scientist is wonderful. I loved my time working as a science educator, a land-use management intern, and geology field assistant, but it was also hard work with a lot of rewrites and not much glory. And, intro physics was one of the more depressing experiences of my life. I was fortunate to be surrounded by other science students who modeled that failure and confusion are part of science (if not most of it). But, we have to let our kids and students struggle with the discomfort of searching for answers if we want them to be okay with that - whether they invent the next awesome battery or if they figure out how to cook the perfect egg or how they want to vote.

  4. Take notes. These can be scribbles, pictures, lists, or you can show your students how to set up a field notebook entry. Scientists write, read, write, revise, revise, and revise when they are playing with big ideas. When we scribble or write our ideas we have something to return to. With wee kids, you can take a picture of them blowing bubbles. In a year, take out the picture and ask if they want to play with bubbles again. You're helping them build connections and notice what they know now versus then about a material. In the classroom, have students revisit notes. They can compare theirs with a neighbor's, they can highlight key terms, they can put question marks by confusing things to talk to you about later. I loved doing competitions during video clips to see who could take the most notes about certain topics I'd list on the board. I also had students model note taking on the board after I did so a few times. With my older students, we'd add sticky note summaries to textbook pages to make sure we could quickly get the info we needed when reviewing for tests.

  5. Label drawings. I always drove my students nuts by saying that drawings without labels were not science. Diagrams are an amazing tool to help us record what we see and to understand what we see in new ways. We can't necessarily watch movement along a fault (crack in rocks, like where an earthquake happens or mountain grows), but we can draw about it and start to understand. However, we are not all gifted with the ability to draw accurate depictions of what we see in a timely manner. Labeling drawings helps us communicate and revisit ideas. Here's how this might look: Hold an ice cube. Notice how it feels. Melt it in a pan holding a lid over it. Draw what you're seeing. The drawing might look like a circle ice cube, a wiggly puddle, and drops of water. When you label these, they go from scribbles to the water cycle. This can then be shared with other people in a kid's life, boosting their scientist identity and literacy skills.


Want to step toward science literacy with your students or family? Try starting science notebooks using simple composition or spiral notebooks to jot ideas, questions, etc in! You can also go to the last post, Month in Moments - January edition, scroll to the bottom, and download the calendar. The activities listed for the 5th (note taking), 13th, 15th (about scale and place), 19th (practicing observation), 20th and 22nd (noticing similarities and differences) can help you step into science in low risk ways. How else will you step toward science literacy in your classroom or in your family this week? Share a picture using #watchwonderbloom! And, stay tuned for an interview with one of my science students!

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