Kean University education faculty launches ‘Early Chemistry’ for young learners

Students in second and third grade at Unity Charter School in Morristown are learning chemistry from a curriculum developed by Kean University College of Education assistant professor Dina Rosen.

UNION, NJ — A faculty member in the Kean College of Education is laying the groundwork for children to learn chemistry by introducing the subject at a young age — in second and third grade.
Kean assistant professor Dina Rosen developed an innovative curriculum called Early Chemistry, or eChem, that taps into children’s natural curiosity and uses child-friendly experiments to begin teaching science. Working with a Kean adjunct and a former student, Rosen is implementing the curriculum for the first time at Unity Charter School in Morristown.

“Say the word ‘chemistry’ and many parents and teachers think of complicated science that is too advanced for young children,” said Rosen, who teaches in the Early Childhood Program at Kean. “However, if presented in a practical way that builds on the kind of questions children have about their world, and that capitalizes on childrens’ natural curiosity, chemistry becomes much easier to understand.”

Rosen is collaborating with Kean adjunct faculty member Amy Mercado, who is also the technology integration specialist at Unity Charter School, to introduce eChem for children in the school’s combined second and third grade. Students use hands-on tools, such as plastic kits that allow them to build molecules and software that lets classes visualize molecules and chemical structures. They also study literature and work with an age-appropriate periodic table of the 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 the science into small details they can better grasp. “I believe the details are exactly what help children understand complicated ideas,” Rosen said.

Rosen, who began doing biochemical research in high school, has worked on many STEM projects as a classroom teacher and professor. In 2018, she began working with Pingry School teacher Daniel Fried on Biochemistry Literacy for Kids, a curriculum bringing college-level science to students in grades K-12. In 2020, Rosen began writing her own chemistry program for second graders, with Fried as a consultant.

Kean College of Education Dean Barbara Ridener said both Rosen and Mercado have the classroom experience and research background to explore the impact of curricular changes on students.

“We look to collaborate with our school partners to enhance curriculum and bring that back to our Kean students as we prepare them to become teachers,” she said. “Through that partnership, we further the development and research of curriculum for all students.”

Early Chemistry was introduced at Unity School in December, starting with a unit exploring nuclear fusion. Maria Camila Gomez, Kean Class of ’21 and a Unity classroom teacher, is also part of the teaching team.

The students love the curriculum so far, Mercado said. “We’re working through a developmental approach to understanding the micro-level of chemistry, and the takeaways have been impressive,” she said.

Christine Thorsen, of Morristown, said she was “blown away” when her 8-year-old son, Jacoby, a second-grader 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 recalled. “I certainly did not learn anything about chemistry until middle school. Introducing chemistry at the elementary level will provide students the opportunity to learn problem-solving skills and critical thinking.”

Along with teaching students the building blocks for understanding chemistry, Early Chemistry, it is hoped, will also spark children’s interest in scientific study going forward, the 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 possible adoption of the program in their schools. She is still looking for additional partners and invites interested school districts to contact her for more details at drosen@kean.edu or 908-737-3779.

Photo Courtesy of Margaret McCorry/Kean University

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