Itty Bitty Science

The Collaborative for Early Science Learning is a group of six museums in six different cities that partner with their local Head Start programs to provide training for teachers and opportunities for family engagement.


Young children learn about the world in much the way that scientists do: through observing, predicting, experimenting, and trying things over and over. A child may test outcomes by repeatedly dropping a toy, for example, to see how it falls and how the adults around them react (Gopnik 2009).Children are ready and eager to engage in science exploration, from their earliest years, but most early learning programs do not do enough to build on competencies in science” (ECS 2014).

Not only do early childhood programs generally lack robust science exploration, but many teachers and parents of young children are also apprehensive about science, leading them to avoid science activities. “Many teachers, who are unlikely to have experienced engaging, inquiry-based STEM learning in their own early and K–12 education, may begin their training with negative dispositions toward STEM … many education majors gravitate to early childhood or special education at least partially because there are minimal STEM course requirements and little perceived demand for teaching STEM …. Fortunately, we can effectively increase teachers’ STEM content knowledge, as well as change negative dispositions and beliefs, with high-quality pre-service and professional development” (McClure et al. 2017).

This article focuses on the efforts of the Collaborative for Early Science Learning (CESL), a group of six museums led by the Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York, that partner with their local Head Start programs to provide training for teachers and opportunities for family engagement. These efforts address the gap between children’s readiness to explore science through everyday experiences and adults’ support. CESL believes that hands-on professional development (PD) opportunities for teachers and families can reduce adult discomfort with facilitating science programming and increase their confidence (McClure et al. 2017).

About CESL and Head Start

CESL is funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant. CESL partner museums were identified through formal networks such as Science Beyond the Boundaries and the Association of Science–Technology Centers’ Early Childhood Community of Practice, the Sciencenter’s established connections, and informal networking at conferences. Five museums joined the Sciencenter to form CESL: Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, Maryland; Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami, Florida; St. Louis Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri; Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, California; and Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. These museums were chosen based on their established relationships with their local Head Starts and their diversity of size, geographic location, and methods of providing early science teacher training.

A family explores science together.

Head Start is a government initiative through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that provides comprehensive early childhood education programs for children ages birth to five from low-income families. Head Start programs support children’s growth and development in an environment that includes family engagement (Office of Head Start). Head Start programs are available in communities across the country. In fall 2016, Head Start adopted the Early Learning Outcomes Framework, which emphasizes the connection between cognitive development and scientific reasoning from infancy through preschool. The Early Learning Outcomes Framework points out that “young children’s inclination to be curious, explore, experiment, ask questions and develop their own theories of the world makes science an important domain for enhancing learning and school success” (HHS and ACF 2015). Additionally, Head Start uses assessment tools based on current child development research that highlights and supports the importance of children engaging in scientific inquiry. These assessment tools include Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) in Head Start, COR Advantage, and Teaching Strategies GOLD.

The two main goals of CESL are to benefit partner museums by having professional collaborators exchange work and ideas regarding effective methods of successful teacher PD for Head Start, and to share successful models of teacher training and family engagement with the broader informal science education field. CESL is working with Lorrie Beaumont of Evergreene Research and Evaluation to collect and analyze observational and anecdotal data and use these findings to both strengthen our work with local Head Start partners and to identify commonalities in practice that can be shared with the broader field. CESL partners share their practices with one another and with the field through webinars, conference sessions, and an online toolkit (

Building Partnerships Between Informal Science Educators and Head Start

Children’s museums have evolved from their collections-centered beginnings to hands-on, multisensory learning environments. “The obvious appeal and success of today’s children’s museums in attracting children and families and engaging them in joyful discovery experiences that instill an appreciation of our world, develop foundational skills, and spark a lifelong love of learning is a … success story in innovative approaches to early childhood development” (Munley 2012). Many early childhood initiatives at museums are focused on providing learning experiences specifically for young children. There can also, however, be an opportunity to help adults—parents, teachers, and other caregivers—see how young children learn when exploring through everyday activities such as block play, manipulating puzzles, and engaging in sensory experiences.

A parent and child categorize objects, a science process skill.


Many early childhood classrooms provide science-rich experiences and materials, but early childhood teachers, because they may have begun their training with negative dispositions toward science, do not always make connections between everyday play and science process skills such as making observations and predictions, experimenting, and using tools (McClure et al. 2017). Museums are well-positioned to help teachers and other adults make these connections because they facilitate learning experiences for adults and children alike through signage and facilitated programs. Head Start is a natural environment to cultivate these efforts. Head Start programs are also well-positioned to adopt successful science programs due to their foundation in science learning standards, commitment to teacher PD, and involvement of families in their children’s education.

PD Models for Early Head Start and Head Start Teachers

In the remainder of this article, we share four models of PD for Head Start teachers and four examples of family engagement events provided by CESL partner museums.

The common components of PD for Head Start teachers at CESL partner museums include:

Evaluations differ between partner museums. Some, such as the Maryland Science Center, use surveys to focus on self-reported teacher growth. Others, such as the Frost Museum of Science, have conducted full-scale, randomized, controlled trial studies to examine the efficacy of its curriculum and program. The Sciencenter’s work with Head Start was evaluated by Evergreene Research and Evaluation and Selinda Research Associates through a developmental process.

Although all CESL partner museums incorporate these components into their PD workshops, each program also caters to its own individual partnerships.

Case Studies

The Sciencenter provides monthly PD workshops for Early Head Start and Head Start teachers, and home-based providers. The initial work of this partnership was funded by an IMLS grant, Science from the Start. According to the summative evaluation of that grant-funded program, found online, many teachers felt less intimidated by science, they felt well equipped with curriculum activities, and ultimately realized that science is something children respond to very early, even babies who observe the world around them!

Head Start teachers explore science activities during a workshop.


Each 90-minute PD session offers four activities for teachers to explore and plan to implement in their classrooms. Teachers are grouped based on the age of the children they work with. Museum educators draw from a variety of preschool science curricula, including ECHOS (Early Childhood Hands-On Science), Peep and the Big Wide World, and ZenoMath, which have monthly themes such as weather, blocks, or birds. Many of the online resources used at the Sciencenter were originally created for preschool, so to accommodate the needs of Early Head Start classrooms, museum educators adapt activity guides for use in infant classrooms and by home-based providers. For example, museum educators adapted an Exploring Ice activity for a younger audience. In the original activity, children interact with ice by squirting colored water, and sprinkling salt on it. Younger children can have ice at their sensory table or be encouraged to build with ice blocks.

Early Childhood Teacher Workshop at the Maryland Science Center.

At the Sciencenter, the same group of teachers attend ongoing monthly training so that they can share feedback on their progress and facilitators can respond to concerns. Each month, teachers are asked to share which activities they’ve tried in their classroom since the previous month, what worked, and what adaptations they made. According to the education manager at the local Head Start, the biggest success of the ongoing monthly program’s emphasis on children using science process skills, is that teachers now see that science is all around in their classrooms. The teachers now feel comfortable with and excited to set up science interactions. During the course of the program Sciencenter staff observed evidence of “authentic assessment” in Head Start classrooms where teachers—on their own—were, for example, creating graphs and charts that recorded scientific observations or other phenomena, or displaying photographs of children engaged with science activities.

Early childhood teachers explore activities.

At the Maryland Science Center, the Early Childhood Teacher Professional Development program consists of single workshops. Each three-hour workshop is offered on weekends, evenings, or school district–designated PD days. All workshops are approved by the Maryland State Department of Education. Offerings include Edible Education, in which teachers learn how to encourage science process skills through gardening and cooking activities, and Science All Around, which helps teachers see and build on the science already present in all areas of their classroom. Working with the Department of Education allows Maryland Science Center to provide continuing education hours to teachers, promoting interest and attendance. Maryland Science Center educators also bring early childhood science programs directly to Head Start classrooms. In the classroom, museum educators model how to support early childhood science while engaging children in hands-on activities, like building with blocks.

The Turtle Bay Exploration Park offers PD workshops twice a year as standalone events. These three-and-a-half–hour workshops draw on activities from GEMS (Great Explorations in Math and Science), a curriculum created by the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. Museum educators model the activities using developmentally appropriate practices and then allow teachers to try the activities themselves. One past workshop topic was Hide a Butterfly, a curriculum designed specifically to tell stories of camouflage, predator/prey interactions, and survival behavior in the outdoors. These curricula ask children to explore these topics by building models, making observations, using dramatic play, and more. At the end of each workshop, teachers complete an open-ended evaluation where they share likes and dislikes about the activities and the experience, ideas on how to implement the curriculum, adaptations that might be needed to better fit their classroom, and future topics for workshops that they would like to see covered. Evaluations are used to improve the PD program and resources for teachers. Following the most recent workshop, for example, teachers reported enjoying the dramatic play portions of the curriculum and expressed excitement about bringing that back to their classrooms. 

A museum educator leads a teacher workshop at Turtle Bay Exploration Park.


One unique resource at Turtle Bay is the Lending Library. Teachers are able to purchase a yearly membership and borrow physical kits that cover the GEMS guides and other curricula, including Project Learning Tree and Growing Up WILD. The kits contain all of the guides and materials needed to do activities in classrooms.

The Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science (Frost Science), in partnership with the University of Miami and Miami–Dade County Community Action Agency’s Head Start program and with funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, developed a comprehensive science curriculum and PD model called ECHOS. The overall goal of ECHOS is to increase teachers’ ability to introduce basic science concepts to preschool children through the use of a guided inquiry–based curriculum. Inquiry-based learning is a form of active learning that starts by posing questions instead of presenting facts. Core elements of the ECHOS approach are the modeling of science process skills and the use of guided inquiry and exploration. Science lessons and integration activities are designed to build on children’s existing knowledge. Using concrete, hands-on materials and guided exploration directed by the lessons, teachers introduce the content and science process skills that help children build meaning over time. The lessons provide new experiences that will become the foundation for the development of more complex science concepts introduced later in children’s schooling.

ECHOS consists of nine thematic units. Each unit contains four guided science lessons that teachers introduce in 20-minute segments to four small groups of children on a weekly basis. The curriculum units are sequenced to present increasingly complex science process skills in the areas of life, Earth, and physical sciences. The ECHOS model incorporates the tested E-I-E-I-O (Excite, Introduce, Explore, Interact, Outcomes) Learning Framework, which guides the teacher to assess children’s prior knowledge about a concept and clarify or correct misconceptions. Lessons blend guided inquiry and direct instruction and are scripted, giving teachers the confidence to present science concepts accurately. ECHOS workshops provide teachers and teaching assistants with guidance on presenting the ECHOS curriculum to their students. Workshop leaders model presentations of lessons and iCards (activities related to the science lessons that are designed to reinforce concepts in the domains of language and literacy, mathematics, and creative arts) while covering topics such as classroom management, science area setup and development, scheduling, and the inquiry approach. Frost Science used a quasi-experimental study and a randomized controlled trial study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education Institute for Education Sciences, to examine the efficacy of their curriculum and program. More information about the research can be found online.

Engaging Head Start Families in Science Learning

Involving families in programming and education initiatives is a key component of the Head Start performance standards. According to the Head Start Parent, Family, and Community Engagement Framework (HHS, ACF, and OHS 2011) involving families strengthens “family well-being, parent–child relationships, families as lifelong educators, families as learners, family engagement in transition, family connections to peers and the local community, and families as advocates and leaders.” Family engagement events can happen in many settings and may have different goals. This section of the article showcases a variety of models of family engagement provided by CESL members.

A Head Start teacher workshop at the Sciencenter.


Case Studies

The St. Louis Science Center hosts an annual family event for Head Start students, families, and teachers with an average attendance of 400–700 people. Upon arrival, families are given a map and agenda to help them feel ready to explore. Many of the galleries have early childhood–friendly exhibits, which are marked on the map to help guide families through the museum. A few more adult-focused science demonstrations such as a liquid nitrogen show are available to entice adults to participate. Before families leave, they are given a survey to help the museum assess what worked well and what could use improvement for the next family night. Family nights were originally supported through grant funding and are now a fee-based option for schools to purchase.

Head Start families are welcomed to a family event at the Sciencenter.


The Sciencenter also hosts family engagement events at the museum. There were two primary things this family engagement program hoped to achieve: (a) for parents/caregivers to gain the confidence and tools to facilitate science exploration with their children; and (b) for parents/caregivers to develop an understanding of the role of the Sciencenter and feel welcome to visit.

Cards promoting family engagement and extensions to do at home.

These monthly family engagement events match the themes that children are exploring in the classroom. If teachers are focusing on botany and plants in the classroom, for example, the event will consist of activities such as a station where children can predict which plant materials will sink or float, and then test their predictions. This helps reinforce classroom learning and complements teacher PD workshops. Each one-and-a-half–hour event is held after regular museum hours and welcomes about 100–150 people each time. As families sign in, they receive a sticker card to encourage them to participate in the four hands-on activities that are specifically designed for the evening. Adults are given a binder ring to help them collect cards at each activity station. These cards promote family engagement by providing guidance for the activity at the museum, as well as ideas for how to continue the lessons at home. Head Start teachers are trained to facilitate the activities and how to best introduce the lessons and materials to families so that they can explore them together.

According to the evaluation of Science from the Start, by Evergreene Research and Evaluation and Selinda Research Associates, “In addition to parents/caregivers increasing their ability (and confidence) to facilitate science exploration with their children, there was also a shift among some Head Start staff.” Teacher involvement at family events also serves as an opportunity for teachers to expand their exploration of science beyond the activities shared during PD. Using familiar materials such as plants, pinecones, blocks, and cups, allows families to feel comfortable with encouraging science exploration and supporting science process skills. This also helps parents understand that science can be done at home as well as in school and at the museum. One parent remarked, “I didn’t know these activities were considered science—we have these items at home and could do these activities in our home!” Educators also focus on reinforcing science process skills by naming each activity by the primary skill. For example, instead of Sink or Float, an activity would be called Making Predictions. This reinforces the importance of encouraging science process skills over content. The finale of the event is a group story time and science demonstration that both tie into the monthly theme.

At Frost Science, museum professionals tested two strategies to engage Head Start families, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. They offer Family Science Days for children and their families from the 33 classrooms participating in the ECHOS Professional Development and Family Engagement Project. Head Start sites are each invited once per year. Bilingual (Spanish/English and Haitian Creole/English) high school students are trained to serve as ECHOS ambassadors to welcome and guide families during the event. In addition to providing PD for the participating teachers and teacher assistants, Frost Science provides a series of workshops for two parent leaders per classroom. These workshops prepare parent leaders to support implementation of ECHOS units in the classroom and at home. The workshops are held once per quarter from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and are held either at the science museum or Head Start center.

Head Start families explore together at Frost Science.


The Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM) also prioritizes family engagement with Head Start families. They offer Parent Play Workshops, which are for caregivers, while their children are cared for in a separate room. These workshops are part of a larger, long-term community partnership program called Connections. Connections is a partnership between BADM and local federally subsided preschools. The partnership includes 43 schools, which amounts to 90 classrooms and more than 1,700 students. The Parent Play Workshop component of Connections is a unique family engagement opportunity facilitated by museum staff that occurs at the school and is often verbally translated into multiple languages.

Families explore together at the Bay Area Discovery Museum.


Each Connections Partner school is offered a Parent Play Workshop once annually. These workshops provide hands-on exploration for caregivers to learn about and participate in early childhood science for 60 to 90 minutes. Parent Play Workshops start with an overview of scientific inquiry process skills based on the Preschool Learning Foundations of California. Then, adults are led in a nature meditation and are invited to make a temporary collage to represent a positive memory they have of playing outside. Temporary collages are made from natural materials like stones, seedpods, leaves, and sticks. As stories and temporary collages are shared, museum staff link these experiences to natural curiosity and scientific inquiry skills. The next activity, Mystery Shakers, excites curiosity and highlights current child development research that links curiosity and long-term memory. At the very end, for just the last 15 minutes, children join their adults and use the same materials to do developmentally appropriate activities for preK kids. The adults can recreate these at home and are provided with prompts to adapt the adult learner activities for their 3–5 year olds.

In written evaluations, participants reported the following:

Overwhelmingly, when participants were asked what they wished for after experiencing the Parent Play Workshop, they said, “I wish we had more workshops like these.”

Looking ahead to the next year of the Connections partnership, BADM staff will try training Connections Partner teachers in facilitating the Parent Play Workshop curriculum on a more personal level with their own classroom parents. This will be a PD opportunity for preK teachers in the subject of science and will empower them to use these activities on a smaller scale with their students’ parents.

In addition to the Parent Play Workshops, Connections also provides field trips related to science, technology, engineering, and math. Parent Play Workshops were developed as a result of teachers asking for deeper support in communicating the value of our field trips to parents, so Connections field trip programming is designed for both children and adults. On average, Connections partner schools bring 1 adult for every 1.3 children on a field trip, making teachers and caregivers an important part of the learning experience. The field trips that have a STEM program start with a circle time that is for children, but also intentionally engages adults and supports their participation by giving them explicit jobs to do and having content for both children and adults about what their child is learning. Each teacher team is provided with curriculum materials before and after a field trip to support integration in classrooms and long-term, active PD. One teacher reported that “knowing what the theme/curriculum/vocabulary will be on each visit ahead of time was a plus. Our teaching team was able to incorporate the museum activities into our planning the week prior to the visit and extend it the week after.”

Teachers also report changing their classroom environment because of their learning experiences with Connections: “We have been working every year to improve our science area. The kids are used to using clipboards to sketch or dictate observations about things they find outside in the yard. They are focusing more on their own findings, rather than some ‘science’ things that we set up and means nothing to them.” In answer to open-ended questions, many teachers report in year-end evaluations that their PD is enhanced by field trips. According to one administrator, “BADM plays an important role in supporting early childhood educators by being an amazing resource of ideas.” Another administrator at a Connections partner school said, “My teachers use the activities and suggestions provided at the museum and the programs brought to their classrooms to extend learning. They always want more!”


The six museums in CESL have delivered teacher training and family engagement for their local Head Start partners and collected and analyzed data on the success of these efforts. CESL is documenting what these practices have in common, and how they differ. Through webinars, online resources, and conference presentations, CESL is sharing case studies and resources for informal educators to support teachers and caregivers to confidently and competently encourage science process skill development. Resources include webinars and other online resources for museum professionals about building and sustaining partnerships with Head Start programs; providing science PD for early childhood teachers; and engaging Head Start families in their children’s learning.

Ninety-six percent of conference participants agreed that the information presented was something they could use. Eighty-six percent of participants agreed that as a result of the session, they were more confident that they could create or expand a Professional Development plan for science. We know of museums that are creating new Head Start partnerships using CESL resources as their starting point. For example, the “Playpal Supervisor” at The Family Museum in Bettendorf, Iowa, had just recently launched a three-year partnership with their local Head Start. He said, “I modeled it after CESL. We’re doing two teacher PDs a year. We will be in their classrooms once a month using the MESS curriculum. There will be two parent nights at the museum, one at the beginning and one at the end of the year.” We continue to work with Evergreene Research and Evaluation to document both the successes of CESL and the work that remains to be done. Our ultimate goal is to provide museum professionals with the resources to guide parents and teachers across the country to notice and encourage young children’s exploration of the world around them through observation, prediction, classification, and other science process skills.