On Monday, March 12th, I spent an entire day in lead teacher Brandon Blake‘s full day classroom at the Denise Louie Education Center in the International District of Seattle. Denise Louie is a Head Start Center, and this was a multi-lingual classroom. The classroom is a diverse group of students. The classroom is comprised of 42% Chinese students, 11% Vietnamese students, 26% White students, 11% Black students and 11% Latino students. 68% of the students in the classroom’s first language was a language other than English, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish and Amharic. The teachers also represent a wide variety of ethnicities: Uzbek, ethnically Chinese from Vietnam, Mexican, and a substitute present in the class who was Vietnamese. And then there is Brandon, who is a 3rd generation American of Russian/Polish Jewish descent.
As the long-time partner of a preschool teacher (Brandon), I’m no stranger to the classroom, but I’ve actually never taught a lesson before. Brandon could tell I was a little nervous, which I was, particularly because I feared losing the interest and attention of the kids. Once I began my lesson, this was no longer a concern. The classroom was full of kids who were incredibly polite, attentive, and very knowledgeable about science!
We began circle time by Teacher Brandon telling his students that I was a scientist and I came to class to teach them about science. He then asked, “Who in this room is a scientist?” Every student raised their hand enthusiastically, so I knew the lesson would be off to a good start. We continued by singing a song about the planets in our solar system. Teacher Brandon cut the song a little short from what I remembered learning as a kid, since Pluto is no longer considered a planet. When he informed his students of this modification to the song, one of them raised her hand and said, “Pluto is not a planet, it’s a dwarf planet.” I see we have another future female astronaut in the ranks! Next, Brandon asked his students, “Who was the first person in space?” to which all of them replied, “Yuri Gagarin!” I know very few adults that can remember his name, let alone pronounce it properly!
We moved on to my activity, which involved counting Skittles. I’ve done this activity before with both middle and high school students, but had to consult Brandon as to how to make it appropriate for 3-5 year old scientists. Usually, is similar to this one, which teaches about elementary statistics:
1) Divide students into small groups and count Skittles or M&M’s to see if the color distribution in the bags is similar to what is reported by the Mars Company as the average color distribution of each bag
2) Make pie graphs using Excel after the students have taken the frequency of each color and divided it by the total number of candy in the bag
3) Compare the pie graphs to what Mars says a bag should be and we can see which colors are over or underrepresented in each bag
4) Talk about the various uses of statistics and how and why sampling techniques are sometimes vital to obtain data
For preschoolers, I adapted the activity as follows:
1) Identify each color in the Skittles bag in English, Spanish and Cantonese
2) Guess the total number of Skittles in the bag. Guesses ranged from 1 to 20,100 (as he pronounced twenty-hundred)!
3) Taking inspiration from a book in their class called “Yummy Colors“, identify what foods are the same colors as each color Skittle
4) Count the number of each color together, out loud as a class, while Teacher Brandon draws a histogram on a large piece of paper behind me. Since Mars says there are 13 of each color in each bag, Brandon draws a dark line at 13 and students identify if the number of each color is over or under the expected amount.
5) Count all of the colors together using the tick marks in the Histogram. The students counted to 64 (all the while, Brandon joked that they must be too tired counting so high and surely may need to stop at 50)!!
Believe it or not, with the exception of calculating percentages, this activity was largely the same as what I would do with a much older group! The students had no difficulty whatsoever, even counting to 64. According to Brandon, this activity also incorporated developmental learning objectives for preschoolers such as quantification, numeration and grouping. In other words, these kids are learning math. In fact, they already knew it!
Incorporating the Skittles Activity into Existing Curriculum
I wanted to be sure I incorporated my lesson into the current curriculum, so in doing so, we brought the lesson full-circle back to space. I explained that while Skittles were very easy to classify because they were all the same size but different colors, some other things in science are not as easy to classify. For example, if an astronomer looks into a telescope and sees a celestial object that they’ve never seen before, how do they classify it? To prove this point, we set up tables with rocks of various colors and sizes and asked the kids to classify them however they wanted. Immediately, a few students began placing all of the big rocks in one pile and the small rocks in another pile. Others were placing light rocks in one pile and dark rocks in another. By the end of the activity, the students had rearranged various rock piles several times due to different classification systems.
I decided to stay the entire day since I was having so much fun working with the kids. In the afternoon, the lesson was making “astronaut food” out of playdough. Since I was the resident scientist of the day, I had to explain the kinds of foods that astronauts can and cannot eat while in space. I told them that astronauts eat M&Ms in space while they are floating in the air. They latched on to this and many of the students made candy to take with them to space. One student made a pizza, cut up slices of chicken and a perfectly-shaped dumpling (pressed closed with beautiful fork marks). Perhaps the astronauts would enjoy their food more if their menu were designed by preschoolers!
As the partner of a long-time preschool teacher, I have always seen the value of preschool education first-hand, but as a sociologist and a scholar of education and stratification, I also see it from a larger lens encompassing empirical studies of the value of preschool education on preventing future incarceration and high school graduation. Programs like these are vitally important to students and to their community as a whole, and it is encouraging to see that these students are taking such as strong interest in science at such a young age. These students prove that science education can never begin too early, and one possible way to close the gender gap or the achievement gap for certain ethnicities is to begin when kids are in preschool, since, as my new young friends taught me at the beginning of class, they’re already scientists!
These are some of my favorite photos from the class. Special thanks to Teacher James for the great photos! Also, a big thank you Teachers Anh and Gulchehra for welcoming me and letting me help lead your class!
Sabrina Bonaparte is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her research areas are Demography, Statistics and Education. She also wrote an earlier blog post about world population and is the manager of the UW SACNAS blog.