In a time when more and more people are noticing an all-out "war on science," it is understandable why so many want to improve science literacy in the next generation.
Nevertheless, American elementary students are falling behind in science and math compared to their international counterparts. In 2015, only 38 percent of U.S. fourth-graders were proficient in science, according to a report from the National Assessment of Education Progress.
Now, a new study from the University of Michigan suggests that part of the problem may begin all the way back in preschool.
The study found that while 99 percent of preschool teachers engage in literacy instruction three to four times a week, when it comes to math and science that number falls to 75 percent and 42 percent, respectively.
The results of the study suggest that early childhood educators lack the knowledge, skills and confidence to effectively teach their students science. In fact, the researchers found that only teachers with a high level of scientific understanding were confident enough to provide quality science education for their students.
While starting science education in preschool may seem too early, there is robust research to suggest preschoolers have the intellectual capacity to learn from scientific thinking. In fact, it is in early childhood that kids first begin to develop their knowledge and skills for science.
A strong science education at this age can even help children avoid misconceptions about the world, said lead author of the study Hope Gerde. Misconceptions that could ultimately obstruct scientific understanding and reasoning later on in life
"Providing quality early-childhood science education is one way to improve the very low science achievement of U.S. elementary school children," said Gerde, associate professor in MSU's Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
"However, it seems the preschool teachers in our study were more confident of their ability in literacy than in science -- likely creating a gap between children's literacy development and science skills."
In the study, Gerde and her team looked at 67 Head Start classrooms for children ages 3 to 5.
The study began by examining a teacher's "self efficacy" or their perceived enjoyment of and ability to teach science, math and literacy. The authors found that, unlike literacy and math, only those teachers who had high knowledge of science were able to provide quality science education. As a result, these teachers were more likely to provide science materials and science experiences in the classroom.
Gerde believes they may be seeing these results for two reasons. Firstly, preschool teachers may not be receiving the appropriate training or preparation for science education and, therefore, they tend to avoid it. Secondly, these teachers may feel pressure from school administrators and policymakers to focus more on literacy than science.
When only 13% of preschool activities are related to science and 9% of these are informal, there is obviously room for improvement.
"If we are to improve U.S. children's science learning, we must provide quality opportunities, in teacher education programs and professional development offerings, for early childhood teachers to develop knowledge and skills in science," said Gerde.
After all, scientific literacy is crucial for the modern-day workforce, and a strong science education is one of the best ways to develop this in the next generation.
The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and is published in the journal Early Education and Development.