NSF awards UT nearly $1 million grant to continue early childhood science education program

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The National Science Foundation awarded the University of Toledo a nearly $1 million federal grant to continue, expand and further evaluate its successful, innovative program that engages teachers and parents in supporting a young child’s natural curiosity through interactive, inquiry-based science lessons.

The University’s NURTURES Early Childhood Science program, which aims to improve the science readiness scores of preschool through third-grade students in the Toledo area, was originally supported with a $10 million, five-year NSF grant. The new $991,081 grant is part of a total of $2.25 million in federal funding for the second phase of the program that extends it through 2021.

NURTURES, which stands for Networking Urban Resources with Teachers and University to enRich Early Childhood Science, is a professional development program and collaboration between UT, local daycare centers and nursery schools, Toledo Public Schools, informal science centers and other community resources to create a complementary, integrated system of science education.

Project participants in the second phase of the project will include 120 teachers, 2,400 preschool through third grade children, and more than 7,200 family members in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

“We are pleased to receive additional funding from the National Science Foundation for the NURTURES program,” said Dr. Charlene Czerniak, professor emeritus of science education and research professor in the UT College of Engineering. “Building on our previous success, we will simultaneously target early childhood teachers, families and children to create a broad support system for powerful and effective science teaching and learning. This program will help close the gaps in science, mathematics, reading and literacy for young children.”

During the first phase of the NURTURES program, 330 teachers of preschool through third-grade and administrators participated in a total of 544 hours of professional development in the teaching of science inquiry and engineering design for early childhood classrooms.

According to research published recently in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, every year that a student has a NURTURES program teacher adds on average 8.6 points to a student’s early literacy standardized test score compared to control students, 17 points to a student’s mathematics score and 41.4 points to a student’s reading score.

The program includes five primary components:

  • A two-week summer institute for preschool through third-grade teachers in which they have access to both scientists and instructional coaches.
  • Academic year professional development, including monthly professional learning community meetings and one-on-one coaching.
  • Family science activity packets, sent home from school four times a year, that each include a newsletter with directions for the investigation, necessary materials for the activity and a journal sheet for children to record data or visually represent understanding.
  • Family community science events, such as engineering challenge simulations, and observations and demonstrations at a park, zoo, science center, library or farm; and
  • Public service broadcasts on television that promote family science activities.

According to the National Science Foundation, an important facet of this follow-up project is the research effort to understand how each component impacts student learning. Project leaders plan to use control groups and standardized tests to measure the effect of teacher professional development compared to family engagement activities.

“What a tremendous opportunity for the young children, their families and teachers in our region to participate in a project that will enhance their understanding of science and the natural world around them,” said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. “It is so important for the project team at the University of Toledo to continue to study the impact that family engagement has on a young child’s education. We know that spending time reading to child exposes them to 1.8 million words a year. What other things could families be exposing to their children to set them on a pathway for success in life? The NURTURES project at the University of Toledo aims to find that out.”

The additional grant award comes one week after the American Association of State Colleges and Universities honored UT with its Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education in recognition of the NURTURES program.

Czerniak oversaw the development of the NURTURES program along with Dr. Joan Kaderavek, professor of early childhood, physical and special education in the UT Judith Herb College of Education; Dr. Susanna Hapgood, associate professor in the UT Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the Judith Herb College of Education; and Dr. Scott Molitor, associate professor in the UT Department of Bioengineering in the College of Engineering.

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