• by Hilaria Bauer, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • April 1996 • 

My students and I had been learning about polar regions for two weeks. Students in my first grade bilingual class were able to locate and describe these zones on the globe. They were also able to explain different food chains and how the climate is a consequence of the location of these regions in our planet. I was very satisfied because they were eager to learn, and their literacy skills were developing tremendously as they discovered facts about distant lands.

However, there were concepts in my lesson plans that I considered too abstract and too difficult for first graders. One of them was the concept of adaptation. I knew that in order to provide my students with sound scientific information, I had to introduce this concept. But, I really did not know how to do it.

Awkwardly, I started my lesson by asking questions about polar bears when one of my students interrupted me, “Ms. Bauer…yo sé porqué los osos polares son blancos [Ms. BauerI know why polar bears are white].” A bit annoyed, I responded, “Sí?…a ver David, porqué son blancos? [Yes?let s see David, why are polar bears white?]” Before I finished my question, he replied, “Por toda la nieve que está alrededor, son blancos porque la nieve es blanca [Because of all the snow around them, they are white because the snow is white].”

David was making inferences by himself. Interestingly, David did not know all the letters of the alphabet (to the dismay of his kindergarten teacher), and consequently, he had trouble decoding and spelling. However, whenever he was asked to write on his journal, he was confident that his beautifully detailed drawings would tell me how much he was learning. He was right. This gifted boy used his playful attitude to discover many details about nature. Even though he was not aware that polar bears fur is translucid and thus reflects the whiteness of their environment; he was able to articulate a reasonable explanation for his finding. This is the foundation of scientific knowledge.

Children like David have taught me how much children do know and how little we as adults credit them for their knowledge. Usually, science is thought of as a higher-order discipline that minority students are not able to understand (Beane, 1988). Also, science is thought of as “content-oriented” rather than “process-oriented.” Thus, the instructional strategies that most teachers use during math and science do not complement the learning styles of minority students (Gilligan, 1982). Consequently, this contributes to minority students low self-concept for math and science achievement (Green, 1995).

Where We Are Now

Traditionally, science has not been perceived as a basic skill in our elementary schools. Even though, in Texas, science essential elements are included as part of the core curriculum from prekindergarten to 12th grade, assessment instruments are designed to evaluate reading, writing and mathematics. Thus, districts spend most of their efforts improving students performance in these areas. However, life in the 21st century is going to require much more than that.

Most facts regarding the scientific literacy of U.S. students are dismal. In their book, Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy, Robert Hazen and James Trefil state that people in this country as a whole do not have the knowledge they need to cope with the Life they will have to lead in the next century (1991). The authors claim that scientists and educators have not provided the necessary background knowledge students need to cope with the world of the future.

When we examine the status of minorities in science, the picture looks even worse. African Americans and Hispanics constitute 10 percent and 7 percent of the professional workforce, respectively. The representation of each group in the scientific workforce is only 2 percent (ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, 1993).

As educators, we have allowed ourselves to believe the following:

  • Science is hard.
  • Science processes and content are not appropriate for everybody.
  • In a saturated curriculum, we need to concentrate on the basics: reading, writing and mathematics.

Unfortunately, these attitudes have prevented us from developing scientifically-literate citizens. In addition, they have obliterated a knowledge that comes very naturally, just by virtue of being human.

Consider two basic principles in child development and learning that enhance scientific literacy: (1) Children construct knowledge, and (2) Children learn through play.

Children Construct Knowledge

In practice this means that children create knowledge as a result of dynamic interactions between children and their physical and social environments. Children discover knowledge through experimentation. This principle states that children formulate their own hypotheses and test them through mental actions and physical manipulations. The newly acquired information becomes part of their schema. These same steps are followed by scientists throughout the world as they search for answers to their questions. By nature, children use the scientific method in order to make sense of their surroundings.

Early childhood environments that provide developmentally appropriate activities are helping children to become scientifically literate. Children who are allowed to explore their own interests are going to be able to formulate more new and exciting questions. As educators, we need to nurture children s curiosity into scientific inquiry by allowing them to explore, test and solve problems.

Children Learn through Play

In practice, this principle translates into providing opportunities for exploration, experimentation and manipulation through play. During play, children examine and define what they have learned from other sources. Just think about a group of five-year-olds in the playground saying: “I ll be the ranger and you ll be the monster. You can attack me with your solar-powered, electron annihilator shot-gun.” It is through play that children develop their imagination, creativity and language.

In the effective early childhood classroom, play is the vehicle for learning. Thus, acquiring scientific literacy becomes child’s play. Children answer a myriad of questions through play. Consider the girl who just ventured to the top of the monkey-bars. She calls you: “Mira qué alto llegué! [Look, how high I got!]” She questions herself on whether or not she can do it, she starts climbing to test this, and finally she finds her answer: She does it! Play provides the setting for experimentation. As we can see, developmentally appropriate activities are essential for scientific literacy.

Scientific Literacy is Possible

How we communicate scientific literacy is just as important as providing developmentally appropriate activities. We need to recognize that all children are cognitively, linguistically and emotionally connected to the language and culture of their home (NAEYC, 1996). An early childhood classroom that is conducive to scientific literacy provides opportunities for children to express their discoveries in many ways. Children must feel that their findings are valued regardless of the language they use to articulate them. A standard form of language is not important at this stage. What is important is for children to realize that their learning is important and that their communication is appreciated.

Young children acquire scientific backgrounds more easily if quality instruction is provided through their first language (Cummins, 1989; Krashen, 1992). Preservice and inservice training is needed for bilingual educators in the area of science so that they feel comfortable guiding bilingual students to achieve scientific literacy.

Scientific literacy can be achieved because children can learn. It is up to us as adults to provide the nurturing environments children need to develop their creativity, their imagination and their knowledge. Who knows, perhaps the answer to incurable diseases or the ability to predict earthquakes accurately resides within that girl who just spilled the red paint all over your carpet. By the way, be creative and merciful, the incident may lead you to a meaningful scientific lesson.


Beane, D. B. Mathematics and Science: Critical Filters for the Future of Minority Students (Washington, D.C.: The Mid-Atlantic Equity Center, The American University, 1988).

Cummins, J. Empowering Minority Students (Sacramento, Calif.: California Association for Bilingual Education, 1989).

ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education. (1993).

Gilligan, C. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

Green, Laura Chris. “Accelerating Content Area Gains for English Language Learners,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 1995), pp. 1, 7.

Hazen, Robert M. and James Trefil. Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1991).

Krashen, S. Fundamentals of Language Education (Torrance, Calif.: Laredo Publishing, 1992).

National Association for the Education of Young Children, position statement. Young Children (NAEYC, January 1996), pp. 4-12.

Smith, L. Mathematics Education in American Indian Culture (Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona State University, 1981).

Sprung, B., Froschl, M. and Campbell, P.B. What Will Happen If… Young Children and the Scientific Method (New York, NY: Educational Equity Concepts, Inc., 19985).

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[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]