Across emergent global networks and within increasingly ubiquitous information flows, institutional research and long term public and private investment compete, largely oblivious of national borders, for globally distributed talent. It is in this light that science, technology, and innovation appear at the heart of economic transformation and competitive advantage strategies. As countries progressively reorient themselves for a new global reality, the role of education in forming the groundwork for these strategies cannot be understated. Increasingly, educational impact is being scrutinised, and indeed policy settings reviewed, through the participation of countries in international benchmark surveys in science, mathematics, and global competencies.
In a global society, development concerns are everyone’s concern, and the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes to engage are crucial. Meeting the growing demand for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) professionals however, is globally constrained by supply side workforce shortages. Participation with the discourse of science, particularly for women and girls who demonstrate traditionally low rates of engagement, presumes a desire and capacity for sensible and comfortable interaction. It also begs the question of when to start. What is clear from research is that early positive attitudes towards science from exposure to scientific concepts and education in the preschool years, transfers to a higher propensity to pursue science at higher levels of education, and indeed to further explore science as a career. Furthermore, in support of countries encouraging and supporting their people with future STEM opportunities, there exists the unfulfilled global opportunity in Early Years classrooms to accommodate STEM and as a result, science learning.
Young learners are keen and able to learn science concepts. They have an innately curious disposition that presents as enjoyment and a sense of wonderment for observing and thinking about nature and the world around them. Such dispositions impart positivity into their experiences which are similarly affirming in the formation of attitudes and beliefs towards science. Play is inherently important in understanding the relationships between things, in meaning making, and in linking imagination and creativity. Structured exposure to scientific concepts and scientifically informed language in these settings further situates the acquisition of new knowledge and skills within the context of existing capability. This imparts the foundations for deeper conceptual learning at higher levels of education. The early development of scientific literacy therefore fosters active learners engaged in thinking and working scientifically. As such, scientific literacy in this sense, is focused on the needs of young learners as future citizens engaging capably with science at a personal and social level.
We know that in learning experiences, children need to see connections between science and the outside world. They need science to be presented in ways that are beneficial to them and that in Early Years science learning this requires the transformation of subject matter in ways that makes learning accessible. But we also know that children are more capable than previously thought in relation to grappling with science concepts. We now know that very young children show rudimentary capabilities with respect to probabilistic reasoning, understanding cause and effect, and hypothesis testing, and that children can and will modify their beliefs based on new observations. The recognition of the capabilities and enthusiasm of young learners suggests that the teaching of science needs to capture the imagination, stimulates questioning and discourse, and develop scientific reasoning. It needs to do this respecting the rigours and traditions of the discipline rather than oversimplifying it. This also has implications for the form and substance of curricula, material resources, and teacher training.
It is more important than ever that we have scientifically literate populations. In the Early Years, this means that proactive steps need to be in place to ensure that children have opportunities to learn science from a young age. Integrated approaches that promote science as a way of thinking, organizing, and using information to make decisions is foregrounded in many countries as an explicit curriculum goal. With science traditionally emphasized less than other areas in the Early Years classroom there are now consistent calls for it to be viewed as a core offering, with learning opportunities covering diverse areas such as learning the difference between living and non-living things, examining the life cycles of humans and other creatures, understanding the physical changes in the earth and sky (e.g., seasons and weather), studying the properties of matter, and examining the behaviour of materials (e.g., melting). In addition, there are growing perspectives on the skills children should know before entering primary school. In science, such skills cover processes, manipulation, and critical and creative thinking, and in the process skills area alignment to school readiness agendas consistently identify observing, describing, comparing, questioning, predicting, experimenting, reflecting, and cooperating, as key.
For the Early Years teacher, this presents unique problems, with research showing teachers often challenged and confronted by the task. The importance is understood, but often a lack of confidence and preparation in teaching science is holding them back. It is not just a lack of specific content knowledge, it is also the ability to be resourced (materially and pedagogically) to structure appropriate learning opportunities. In other words, teachers need the knowledge and skills to be able to teach science in a way that becomes important for children and their development that takes their interests and understandings of the world around them but develops an openness to being skeptical and questioning, seeks alternative explanations for observations, and develops capabilities to identify questions (because good questions guide research and are crucial for problem solving). As Albert Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of research”. In this sense, hands-on intentional learning supports the making of informed decisions, the drawing of evidence based conclusions, and active engagement in the discourse of science. Crucial to the debate about the participation rates of young people in STEM oriented future pathways is that they need to see themselves not just as learners, but as scientifically literate, active citizens. So, our societal challenge for teachers and young learners alike is that scientists are not “other people”: a scientist is someone like them.