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Why, yes, Pre-K CAN do that!

Miss Rusty with student talking about science journal entry  Pre-K students doing journals for the Tree Study  Science Journal Show and Tell   

January 2023


Have you ever wondered if students in Pre-K can learn science and engage in activities that involve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)? According to Pre-K teacher Rustina (Rusty) Sharpe, they absolutely can


This is her story of proving it to be true—scientifically.


Typically, when you hear the buzzword “STEM,” it will conjure images of students looking through microscopes in labs, groups of children doing engineering projects, or older kids in middle and high scho

ol working on structured experiments.


With an insatiable thirst for learning and incredible passion for science, “Miss Rusty” (as her students call her) has incorporated Science Journals in her Pre-K classroom at Efland-Cheeks Global Elementary School. What she sees in those journals supports her belief that pre-K students can benefit from regular, well-planned science lessons.


“I use purposeful play while increasing science and STEM in play,” said Sharpe. “There are many misconceptions about Pre-K. Many say, ‘Pre-K can’t do that.’ Well, I say Pre-K can do that.”


One way Miss Rusty introduces preschoolers to science concepts is through vocabulary.


“Even if they don’t recall the words, they hear them and they will remember the h

ands-on experience they had, say, doing ramps and pathways, slopes and velocity, and

 all of that. If they have the experience, they can pull from it whenever they need to. They come back and make the connection,” said Sharpe.


With Science Journals incorporated into her daily routine, Miss Rusty not only finds evidence for her belief that Pre-K “CAN DO THAT” but also rounds out her research for a second master’s degree. Her findings show how students make marked improvements in language and literacy skills, verbal communication skills, conversational skills, and in particular, how every child benefits from an enriched student-teacher relationship by this process of dialogue and reflection. 


Sharpe has also discovered that – over time, with science journals as part of the curriculum – students use more words and use them fluently. They “move away” from one-word answers, verbalize more, and it even “stops the pointing (gestures),” she said.

Sidebar: What are Science Journals? the ‘Tree Study’

Pre-K student holding science journal

This past fall, students in Miss Rusty’s Pre-K class brought in a collection of leaves, sticks, acorns, pine cones, and bark. In small groups, they would talk about colors, textures, and what each thing was. Students t

hen chose one or two things to draw a picture of in their journal and write about it on the lines. (Some students are able to write letters 

and words; others can make marks representing their writing.) Miss Rusty then asked clarifying questions about their art, and logged it in the journals, in their own words. Having students do this process three times a week helped them develop and practice in

quiry skills as well as reading and writing skills. It is an opportunity to communicate and build relationships. It’s a great way for students to learn to talk about their work, and it’s an even better way for students to take their work home and share with their families!

Miss Rusty teaches general and special education Pre-K students at Efland-Cheeks Global Elementary School. Students in her class come from many different walks of life and have very different life experiences. 


For example, in a blended class of 16 students, some speak Spanish, some Burmese, one is from Nigeria, and four others have IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) for special needs. And every student has a growth opportunity thanks to her mindset and the foundation she builds with them.


“The research shows it’s working,” she said. Her data shows that English Language Learners become more familiar with words in English, and students with IEPs build language as well – they celebrate new skills like writing the number “2” and spelling a new word. “This is huge for students with IEPs,” said Sharpe. Together, they celebrate.


Miss Rusty hopes science will become more global in the birth-to-early-childhood world. While research is more and more abundant on integrating science and STEM in preschool, many cling to a belief that science in Pre-K is taboo.


She said, “Many people don’t think Pre-K can really do science and STEM. But they really can. I want to be one of those trailblazers, integrating and advocating for it…”


“Teachers, who should know better, question and doubt me about using science in Pre-K,” said Sharpe. “I modify science to meet their needs and keep it appropriate for them. This is still science; and it is still STEM.” 


Not convinced Pre-K can do science? Miss Rusty wants to make you a believer. She had this to say:


Aside: Miss Rusti offers every child a rich learning experience 

As babies, we are born scientists and we thrive on cause and effect. How can you doubt it? It’s the natural curiosity of the child. In introducing vocabulary, I don’t expect them to use it back, but I demonstrate the concepts for them, keep it hands on and turn it over to them. It’s about the experience. And maybe when they get older, they will remember “Miss Rusty” teaching us about that. For example, if we are building ramps for toy cars in pre-k, that is engineering. Did your car stay on the ramp? Did it fall off? Why do you think it fell off? Was it going too fast? It’s saying, “I wonder what would happen if …” and helping them think before they act. And for the doubters–if you don’t believe me, come to my classroom and we can show you!”


Rusty Sharpe is just one teacher in Orange County Schools making a difference – in her quest to improve her own knowledge and practices, her work has also caught the attention of school-level counterparts and district leaders in neighboring systems.


OCS Pre-K specialist Michelle Meade said Sharpe is shining a light on integrating science in preschool. Meade said her work can potentially “reframe the mindsets” of K-12 educators.


“Her love of that scientific process infuses into the group (i.e., of teachers, the Pre-K professional learning community in OCS). She always has that in the background of her mind,” said Meade. Bringing science to the forefront, Sharpe presents a new perspective for members of a PLC to stimulate collaboration and planning sessions.


Meade added, “And her passion is so embedded in the classroom, that students feed off of it. And that’s a quality that not everybody has to offer or recognizes in themselves.”


Thea Wilson, EC Pre-K Specialist for OCS, said, “Rusti[na] clearly delights in getting to know each child, developing learning that is both fun and challenging, and connecting with their joy and celebrating their accomplishments alongside them.”


According to Meade, this joy for learning and innovative integration of STEM into daily activities encourages creativity and unique approaches to learning.


“Rustina… always has science on her mind and her students' best interest in her heart! I have never heard her say that a student can’t learn.”


Ultimately, Wilson said, students in her class just come out better from having teachers like Rusty Sharpe: 


“Children make great strides and develop a strong sense of self, a deep love of learning, and the confidence they need as learners who will continue to interact with their world and become active change makers.”