Berkshire Early Learning Lab: Teachers schooled on science of early learning

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NORTH ADAMS -- Last summer, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts received a nearly $104,000 state grant to increase educator understanding of the science of early learning by establishing what is known as the "Berkshire Early Learning Lab."

Funded by the state Department of Early Education and Care, the partnership includes the college, local school districts and early education and care providers, as well as local museums and members of countywide education initiatives.

During the past school year, the partners were able to provide multiple professional development opportunities for early childhood educators as well as family outreach and learning programs, materials and activities.

Last week, Assistant Professor of Science/Technology Education Nick Stroud, Ph.D., taught an intensive five-day early childhood course for Northern Berkshire teachers of elementary and Head Start programs.

Massachusetts Department of Higher Education officials Winifred "Winnie" Hagan, director for educator policy, and Cynthia Orellana, director of policy and collaborative initiatives from pre-kindergarten through college, also paid the group a mid-week visit. Their mission is to learn more about the program, pedagogy and process of fostering quality programs that help educators best teach their students to think scientifically, to learn to ask questions, think about the possibilities and have fun in the process.

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"This project in particular captures our imagination in how collaborative it is, how it's been able to bring public and private entities together," said Hagan, who last visited the county in January to observe Berkshire Early Learning Lab initiatives in action.

On the day of Hagan and Orellana's visit, Stroud was teaching a lesson on the science of sound waves by giving participants the opportunity to play with tuning forks, sound sensors and sound-sensing computer software, and both professional and homemade musical instruments. He also took teachers on a tour of the campus to listen to the sounds around them and question and consider their sources.

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Research has shown that early childhood educators have historically shown a significant lack in scientific knowledge and the process of thinking. In their own education, they may have been taught by rote, versus discovery or inquiry-based learning, which is now the preferred and more engaging style of instruction.

Stroud said he and his other colleagues who work with early childhood educators not only strive to enlighten them, but "we push them too.

"We push their thinking to get them out of their comfort zone," Stroud said. "In class, participants will often ask me, ‘I wonder what would happen if ...,' and I'll say, ‘I don't know. Let's find out.' We want you to leave here feeling like you're empowered to ask questions about the world."

"This is very applicable, not only as an early childhood education teacher but also to myself as an adult learner," said Lois Hobbie-Welch, who teaches kindergarten at Brayton Elementary School.

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"Kids really love science in general and are absolutely thirsty for it, but as a teacher, you have to be flexible in the ways you teach it. This is a big help in learning some of those ways," said Eric Brown, a fourth grade math and science teacher at Cheshire Elementary School.

Douglas McNally, coordinator of the Berkshire Readiness Center, a partner in the Berkshire Early Learning Lab initiative, said the program will in August sponsor a local three-day elementary engineering program with the Boston Museum of Science and a professional development program about numeration in early education.

Berkshire Early Learning Lab will continue to offer professional development programs and credentials for early childhood educators in the fall.

One of Berkshire Early Learning Lab's goals is to develop and share a database of grade-level lesson plans created by local teachers, which can be shared with and utilized by other educators in Berkshire County and beyond.

"We're looking for how these collaborative programs impact educators' practice," said Hagan. "As we move into the second year of the grant, we're looking to see in what ways educators are moving forward and being helped."

To reach Jenn Smith:,
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On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink


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