UNION, NJ — A faculty member at Kean College of Education is setting the stage for children to learn chemistry by introducing the subject at a young age — in second and third grade.
Kean’s assistant professor, Dina Rosen, has developed an innovative program called Early Chemistry, or eChem, which taps into children’s natural curiosity and uses child-friendly experiments to begin teaching science. Working with a Kean aide and an alumnus, Rosen implements the program for the first time at Unity Charter School in Morristown.
“Say the word ‘chemistry,’ and many parents and teachers think of complicated science that’s too advanced for young children,” said Rosen, who teaches in the early childhood program at Kean. “However, if presented in a hands-on way that builds on the kind of questions children ask about their world and capitalizes on children’s natural curiosity, chemistry becomes much easier to understand.”
Rosen is collaborating with Kean’s adjunct faculty member Amy Mercado, who is also a technology integration specialist at Unity Charter School, to introduce eChem to children in the school’s combined second and third years. Students use hands-on tools, such as plastic kits that allow them to build molecules and software that allows classes to visualize molecules and chemical structures. They also study literature and work with an age-appropriate periodic table of elements that is color-coded and contains only the first 18 elements.
The idea is to teach chemistry to young children at the “micro” level, breaking down the science into small details that they can better grasp. “I believe details are exactly what helps children understand complicated ideas,” Rosen said.
Rosen, who started doing biochemical research in high school, has worked on numerous STEM projects as a teacher and professor. In 2018, she began working with Pingry School teacher Daniel Fried on Biochemistry Literacy for Kids, a program bringing college-level science to K-12 students. In 2020, Rosen began writing her own chemistry curriculum for second graders, with Fried as a consultant.
Kean College of Education Dean Barbara Ridener said Rosen and Mercado have the classroom experience and research track record to explore the impact of curriculum changes on students.
“We are looking to work with our school partners to improve the curriculum and bring it back to our Kean students as we prepare them to become teachers,” she said. “Through this partnership, we continue to develop and research curriculum for all students.”
Early Chemistry was introduced at Unity School in December, beginning with a unit exploring nuclear fusion. Also part of the teaching team is Maria Camila Gomez, Kean Class of ’21 and Unity class teacher.
Students like the program so far, Mercado said. “We work through a development approach to understanding the micro-level of chemistry, and the takeaways have been awesome,” she said.
Christine Thorsen, from Morristown, said she was ‘blown away’ when her 8-year-old son Jacoby, a second year pupil at Unity Charter School, came home and said he was learning chemistry .
“Then he said, ‘Did you know that water is two hydrogens plus one oxygen, and that’s why it’s called H2O?'” she recalls. “I certainly didn’t learn anything about chemistry until college. Introducing chemistry at the elementary level will give students the opportunity to develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
In addition to teaching students the basics to understand chemistry, Early Chemistry will hopefully also spark children’s interest in science studies in the future, educators said.
“The eChem program is producing exciting results as defined by all stakeholders – students, parents and educators,” said Rosen, who is in talks with a few districts about possibly adopting the program in their schools. She is always looking for additional partners and invites interested school districts to contact her for more details at firstname.lastname@example.org or 908-737-3779.
Photo courtesy of Margaret McCorry/Kean University