of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Rutgers University. Through a prekindergarten program called Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS), Gelman and her colleagues have found ways to engage young children in complex scientific thinking using a coherent program that is sustained over extended periods of time. The program is designed as a collaboration among researchers and early childhood educators, and it is based on research indicating that young children are capable of building progressively on knowledge they gain in a particular domain (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004). The key finding from Gelman’s work is that children may be capable of scientific thinking far more complex than most casual observers might expect, and than scholars such as Piaget had considered possible.
Gelman illustrated her remarks with examples of children’s complex thinking drawn from her experiences with PrePS. In one example, the children were shown a set of pictures that included both depictions of real animals, though ones likely to be unfamiliar to the children (e.g., an echidna), and depictions of animal-like objects, including fanciful creatures and toys. Using a variety of different questioning strategies, Gelman and her team established that the children could successfully distinguish between the real and nonreal animals and between those that could or could not move on their own power, and they could even identify the features that helped them make these distinctions.
Gelman has drawn several conclusions from her work: perhaps the most important is that providing children with a mental structure to guide their learning is critical. Specifically, Gelman argues, young children have the capacity to build on mental structures, that is, to take new information or observations and link them to concepts they have already thought about. Children can be guided in the development of these cognitive building blocks—concepts such as the general characteristics of a living thing—so that they can develop ways of thinking scientifically or in the intellectual traditions of other domains.
Once a mental structure is in place, she argued, children are much more likely both to notice new data that fit with what they have already learned and to store data in such a way that they can build on it in the future. Conversely, when children lack a mental structure for organizing particular domains of knowledge, the significance of new data is not evident to them and they must either construct a new structure to accommodate it or fail to benefit from it. Gelman also argued that young children need to develop familiarity with the language of science as they are gaining conceptual knowledge. The two go hand in hand and support one another: if children begin learning the correct vocabulary for the scientific work they are doing (observing relevant features, measuring, experimenting, predicting, checking, recording, and the like), it will enhance their conceptual learning.
Throughout her remarks, Gelman stressed that the key to the successes she and her colleagues have had has been the opportunity to work over a long term. The goal for PrePS was, as she put it, to “move children onto relevant learning paths,” and this is done by creating an “environment that is coherent and embed-