East Carolina University will lead a new five-year, $1.3 million grant that will give thousands of North Carolina children an early start on learning about science and nutrition.
Preschool Education in Applied Sciences (PEAS) is a project made possible by a Science Education Partnership Award funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The PEAS program will work with Head Start teachers of preschoolers from 3 to 5 years old in seven eastern North Carolina counties to build their confidence and skill sets for teaching science in the context of healthy living. PEAS will partner with Head Start — a federally funded preschool program for low-resource children and their families — to reach the preschool teachers who otherwise receive relatively little training in teaching science compared with the teachers working with older students.
Dr. Virginia Stage, associate professor in ECU’s College of Allied Health Sciences’ Department of Nutrition Science will lead the project as the principal investigator and will be assisted by faculty from the university’s College of Education and College of Health and Human Performance, as well as faculty from UNC Greensboro, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T University.
Because young children can often be hesitant about trying new foods, the PEAS program will emphasize building children’s curiosity about healthy foods through hands-on exploration.
“Our team believes integrating science and health concepts in the classroom is the ideal way to introduce new foods and encourage exploration of how nutrition impacts our health,” Stage said.
Stage said teachers will be shown how to develop inquiry-based learning activities that will encourage children’s natural curiosities about their environment and encourage them to try the nutritious foods that they learn about.
“Exploring the color and texture of a fruit or vegetable is a lot less intimidating than being asked to eat it,” she said. “Children can use magnifying glasses to examine the texture of broccoli, conduct taste-testing experiments to compare different types of apples, or observe how sweet potatoes grow, all while also making predictions and asking new questions about the foods that are good for our bodies. None of this technically involves eating, but yet, what we find is that once children have spent time exploring food through the lens of science, they want to eat it. At the same time, they’ve also gained a better understanding of science, and changed how they view the world.”
The project is now in its planning stage and is expected to move into its pilot stage in fall of 2020. PEAS will work with seven Head Start centers, incorporating 27 classrooms and 54 teachers to reach nearly 500 children in Pitt, Martin and Beaufort counties in the pilot stage.
Revisions and improvements in the program will take place in the third year of the grant before the program’s full implementation in year four, when PEAS will extend to an additional eight centers, 34 classrooms and 68 teachers working with about 600 children in Craven, Pamlico, Carteret and Jones counties.
Full dissemination will take place in the fifth year of the program and will extend its reach into six additional counties in the state — Caswell, Chatham, Wake, Sampson, Haywood and Jackson. Stage anticipates the program will reach more than 3,500 children by the end of the grant’s fifth year.
Because the program will primarily focus on educating the teachers rather than creating a curriculum or working directly with students, the number of students who will benefit from the program will continue to grow for years to come.
“Our goal is simple: to invest time and resources in our teachers that will support their ability to teach young children about the importance of science in their lives.” Stage said. “And just maybe we will inspire kids to become future scientists or health professionals along the way.”