Sunday, June 21, 2009

Children’s Center at Caltech

One of best things about science is teaching children about science. It should be no surprise that Caltech does this very well. The Children’s Center at Caltech (CCC) is a fully accredited, private, non-profit organization that offers childcare to the Caltech/JPL community and is also open to children from the surrounding area. CCC has a website found at: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~ccenter/

CCC is a delightful experiment in introducing science to preschool age children. Much more than an ordinary preschool, CCC invites kids to take part in a science-based curriculum during that period of intense curiosity in a child’s life that is so important to nurture. The emphasis is on active, hands-on learning, with pre-math activities such as shape identification, shape and quantity of numbers and pre-reading activities such as alphabet bingo, dictation, and storytelling.

I arranged for a tour of CCC with the center’s director Susan Wood who I found to be very engaging and entirely passionate about the CCC mission. I didn’t anticipate what I was in store for, but it turned out to be wonderful. The children are grouped together by age; e.g. the Koala group has the three year olds. They were busy with a unit called “Dead or Alive,” in which their assignment was to figure out how to decide if something is living or nonliving. Observations and hypotheses are noted in their journals, a routine task for budding science investigators. One child reported “the strawberry is alive because it is green.” CCC emphasizes collaboration and the group’s observations are distilled into posters. Another experiment involved water play, specifically comparing natural loofahs to manmade sponges. The four-year old Raccoons were learning about energy by estimating how far a paper airplane will go, throwing it, and measuring the result. Another experiment was to put a thermometer in a shaft of sunlight to see what happens. Their workroom has all kinds of quantitative tools such as cups, rulers, a kitchen scale, etc. The Beavers, age five, study the six simple machines – the wheel and axle, the wedge, the lever, the inclined plane, the screw, and the pulley. The underlying lesson is about form and function and about tools in general. The Beavers use their journals to record full drawings of machines seen around the Caltech campus – a telescoping construction crane (pulleys), electric carts (wheels), a cherry picker trimming tree branches (levers), and even a washing machine (gears).

My favorite area at CCC is the Outdoor Science Laboratory. Under a slanted corrugated steel roof, a central U-shaped work island has a built-in light table, white-boards that flip over to reveal overhead mirrors for better views of things on the counters, and portable electrical power from a pair of overhead cable reels. There are also microscopes for looking at bugs and leaves. The walls are lined with cabinets, sinks, and a whiteboard. One of most endearing aspects of the lab is a coat rack with a number of tiny white lab coats the children are encouraged to wear during their experiments.

At the culmination of my tour, I was brimming over with enthusiasm for CCC’s obvious success at introducing science to very young children. To my knowledge, there is no other science-oriented preschool anywhere. I was impressed by the excellent ratio of teachers to students and how unusually well-behaved the children were. The kids truly seemed to be interested in the science principles being presented.

I asked director Wood about what lasting effect the preschool science curriculum had on the children as they progressed on with their education. It seemed to me that introducing the scientific method early on in life would necessarily induce great things later on. Alas, director Wood indicated there was no funding for such tracking efforts.

Anyone out there reading this post that is in the field of preschool education, please consider taking a closer look at CCC as a model for a school in your area. This is an idea that should spread.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great story. I work in preschool too. I'm going to find out more about ccc so maybe we can use some of their techniques. thank you for highlighting them..

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