From Tufts to Tomorrow's Classroom

Eliot-Pearson’s Christine McWayne and Jayanthi Mistry and their Ph.D. students unite teachers and parents for a new kind of preschool experience

More than 108 inches of snow fell on Boston this winter, the most on record. For the three- and four-year olds at the Head Start preschool in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, their entire world was covered in snow and ice. Cars disappeared under mounds of marshmallow fluff. Storefront awnings and pine trees bent low under heavy white blankets. Looking into the children’s eyes, you could see the wonder and excitement reflected back.

The Chinatown Head Start teachers had a choice. They could treat the snow as a nuisance, something that stole away school days and was a major source of classroom distraction—“Look, it’s snowing again!”—or they could embrace the children’s natural curiosity and bring the snow into the classroom. Literally.

“The teachers and children gathered buckets of snow from outside and dumped it onto the sensory table,” says Sunah Hyun, a Ph.D. student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University, who was observing as part of a team of researchers who are testing an exciting new approach to preschool curriculum development.

“They used the snow to teach children about states of matter, letting them feel how the ice crystals turn to liquid in their warm hands, and letting them experiment with tools for moving water around when it’s solid versus when it’s liquid.”


Founded by educational pioneer and social justice advocate Abigail Eliot in the 1920's, the Eliot-Pearson Children's School — originally called the Ruggles Street School — was one of the first preschools in the country. Today it's an on-campus laboratory-demonstration school enrolling 80 kids, preschool through second grade. Tufts teaching students train in its classrooms, and Tufts graduate researchers use it as a real-world observation site.

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The Head Start students, mostly Chinese-American children from low-income, urban-residing immigrant families, were so riveted by the hands-on snow activity that even the more reserved and quiet ones among them, who spoke little English, felt bold enough to try out new words. Children who sometimes struggled with behavioral issues were engaged and laser-focused. And through it all, these children were learning about science—real, practical, and relevant science.

This is no accident. The Chinatown Head Start program is one of two Boston preschools participating in the Readiness through Integrative Science and Engineering (RISE) project, a research effort led by Tufts Associate Professor Christine McWayne and funded by the National Science Foundation and Brady Education Foundation. RISE represents a uniquely collaborative and culturally relevant approach to teaching science, technology and engineering (STE) in the preschool classroom.

“Science is everywhere,” says Professor McWayne. “That’s one of our mantras.”

Instead of pulling a scripted science curriculum book from the shelf—the standardized approach to implementing science curriculum—preschool teachers in the RISE program are encouraged to look for inspiration in the day-to-day lived experiences of their students. To do this, RISE works with teachers to build their confidence in their ability to facilitate science inquiry, and to break down the traditional barriers between science lessons and “real life,” between the indoor classroom and the outside community, and most importantly, between teachers and families.

5 Unique Elements of RISE

Focus on Dual-Language Learners (DLL)
S-T-E integration
Practice-based, individualized professional development for teachers
Home-School Collaboration (HSC) beyond home extension activities
Co-construction process of curriculum development

A recurring theme of McWayne’s research is finding effective ways to strengthen the home-school connection.

“It’s not enough to send home extension activities with a student. The dialogue needs to work both ways, school-to-home and home-to-school,” says McWayne. “That requires a subtle, but profound shift in the way that teachers think about families and the resources in children’s homes and communities. Not as a deficit”—something to “work around,” like piles of snow—“but as a rich educational resource.”

Lok-Wah Li, another Tufts Ph.D. student working on the RISE project, remembers a father who was passionate about fish.

“He helped create a whole lesson about different types of fish and what they need to live,” says Li. “He brought in an aquarium with live fish, and the teacher used it to spark a discussion about living versus non-living things. This is about using parent expertise and embedding it in the formal curriculum of the classroom.”

Parent-teacher collaborations like this don’t happen overnight. They are the product of a lengthy and careful process of relationship-building. Ph.D. students Hyun and Li spent the entire first year of the three-year RISE project winning the trust of teachers and parents.

“We didn’t come into the school and hand them a curriculum,” says Hyun. “First we had to establish a non-hierarchical relationship. We’re not casting ourselves as the ‘experts.’ The idea is to build the curriculum together—a technique called ‘co-construction’—based on the unique experiences and expertise of both teachers and parents.”

Over the course of the year, Hyun and Li met with groups of teachers and parents separately. With teachers, they would participate with the faculty leaders of the project in running workshops to brainstorm fun science activities and talk about ways to improve the children’s classroom experience. With parents, the researchers wanted to learn what they expected from the school and what role they could and wanted to play in their children’s education.

“Then it was time to bring teachers and parents together in the same space,” says Hyun. Most teachers, like the parents, had emigrated from China to the U.S.  “We tried out some of the science activities together, talked about cultural adjustments. And slowly, through several of these group workshops, established an equal-partner relationship.”

Ultimately, what McWayne and Tufts colleague Jayanthi Mistry hope to accomplish with the RISE project goes way beyond the success of a single preschool in Chinatown. They and their team are carefully documenting the RISE co-construction process so that it can be replicated in preschool programs across the country.

By late March, the snow had finally melted in Boston, and teachers, students and parents were heading outside for their next mind-opening encounter with science.

Learn more about Tufts’ community-based research projects and our more than 45 top-ranked graduate programs across the arts & sciences and engineering.