For many pre-kindergarten students in the Austin area, it’s clear the egg came before the chicken. Long before.
“Maybe 25 days,” guessed 5-year-old Sanchez Elementary student Ayianna Williams. She and her classmates — and students in dozens of other classes in Austin-area schools — are waiting for chicken eggs to hatch. It’s a 21-day wait that is part of an ongoing lesson on the life cycle.
“Twenty-one days is a long time,” said Gail Laubenthal, Ayianna’s teacher at Sanchez Elementary.
The lesson is the outcome of a four-year National Science Foundation grant aimed at investigating what students can learn about science before entering kindergarten. Though the grant ended last year, many teachers in the Austin area are keeping the focus on science because they say it keeps small children — who usually have yet to learn much of the subject — engaged.
“The way they think now is science,” said Thelma Herrera, a teacher at Austin’s Mathews Elementary. “It’s about what’s around them.”
Herrera said teaching from a science base also makes it easier to incorporate other subjects, including math and writing. For instance, the students will measure temperatures in the incubator and will write about waiting for the eggs to hatch.
“Children are very engaged by science,” said Mary Hobbs, coordinator for science initiatives at the University of Texas’ Center for Science and Mathematics Education, which received the grant. “It’s the real world. It’s tangible, these are things they can touch — and they’re very tactile. That’s what small children do, is use their senses to explore.”
Most of what is known about children’s knowledge and ability in science is the result of anecdotal data from teachers, with little research conducted since the 1960s, Hobbs said. The project was aimed at exposing students to hands-on science activities that gave them an opportunity to demonstrate their science skills and show their conceptual understanding — not just their ability to memorize facts. The project began in September 2008 and lasted through the spring of 2012 when the grant officially ended, but data analysis is ongoing — and teachers who took part in the project have continued the science-based lessons, a sign of the program’s success.
Most schools begin teaching science in the third grade, but the project has shown that students can begin to understand the subject much earlier, said Bob Williams, a researcher working on the project who delivered 86 dozen eggs to teachers last week. Williams said teaching science earlier could help bring American students — who lag behind their peers globally in science — back to the head of the class internationally.
Many of the participating classes also planted gardens to learn about different types of plants and the ecosystem around them.
“They grow butterflies, frogs, mealworms,” Williams said. “They find critters attacking their lettuce and cabbage, and they study it.”
Laubenthal’s class found caterpillars crawling around the fennel in their garden Wednesday. The experience inspired student Araceli Lopez to make a spinning, pinwheel-like chart showing the life cycle of butterflies.
Inside the classroom, Araceli’s classmate Junior Castillon talked about the chicken eggs. One was cracked, he said. Chicks will crack their way out, he said. Junior said he expects the process will be “really slow.”
To ease the three-week wait — and to show her students what to expect when the eggs hatch — Laubenthal purchased chicks to keep in the classroom. Araceli, Junior, Ayianna and their classmates named the chicks Anna Herra and Toby Flynn while the little birds stumbled around in their laps. In front of the students was a white incubator with potentially dozens more little birds.
“It’s so they can warm up,” Ayianna said of the incubator. “It’s almost like the mommy.”
CORRECTION: A photo caption accompanying this story has been updated to correctly identify Sanchez Elementary student Ayianna Williams.