California State University, Long Beach
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William Ritz (back row, 4th from left) with group he worked with.

Science Educator Begins China Collaboration

When William C. Ritz, professor emeritus in CSULB’s Department of Science Education, received an e-mail from China in August 2007, he was initially reluctant to open it, thinking it might be just another foreign spam message. But it proved to be a fortuitous correspondence.

Ritz has been with CSULB since 1977 and is director of the National Center for Science in Early Childhood in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and its “A Head Start on Science” program aimed at pre-kindergarten through second grade students. He also served as editor of “A Head Start on Science: Encouraging a Sense of Wonder,” a teacher’s guide of almost 100 hands-on science activities for early childhood educators, recently published by NSTA Press.

It was the Head Start on Science program’s Web site that led Associate Professor Wang Su, director of the Center for Science and Technology Education at the China National Institute for Educational Research in Beijing, to write to Ritz. “She had seen a copy of ‘A Head Start on Science’ and was interested in having the book translated into Chinese for publication there.  She invited me to visit China to share information about the program and to discuss future collaboration possibilities.  I wrote a very cautious response,” he said. But after determining that this was indeed a legitimate invitation for international collaboration, Ritz accepted the offer.

“My wife and I spent 10 days in China in November as their guests. There, I was asked to make several presentations, teach and critique science lessons, and meet many educators involved in early childhood education. We had a formal meeting with the director of the institute,” along with visits to Chinese cultural sites in Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Suzhou.

“They started talking about a formal collaborative agreement but since a formal agreement would require consultation and approval on campus, we just talked about possibilities in general terms. When Professor Wang Su came to Southern California in the spring, we visited several kindergarten classes and Head Start centers. She was able to see Head Start on Science in action and we were able to introduce her to our science education program on campus,” Ritz said. They also attended the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) national meeting in Boston.

With the assistance of Ken Curtis in CSULB’s Center for International Education, Ritz, Wang Su and Science Education Department Chair Laura Henriques signed a letter of agreement that outlines a variety of proposed educational activities between CSULB and the China National Institute, as well as an agreement to publish the Head Start on Science teachers guide in China in collaboration with its U.S. publisher, NSTA Press.

Ritz also oversees the annual week-long A Head Start on Science summer workshops designed to help Southern California pre-K teachers to integrate science into their classrooms. Participants receive a copy of the Head Start on Science teacher’s guide along with a variety of classroom materials to enable them to carry out the book’s hands-on activities. In addition to this year’s regular program, Ritz and his colleagues organized a second workshop that brought Wang Su and nine other Chinese educators to CSULB in late June and early July.

Ritz noted that Chinese kindergartens typically are broader programs that include children ages 3 to 6. With the help of a Chinese language translator and using translated handouts, Ritz and his workshop instructors conducted their regular workshop sessions along with several special activities arranged for their guests.

“They wanted to see some early childhood programs here. What we did was to run our typical Monday and Tuesday sessions, and then on Wednesday, took them to the Brooklyn Early Education Center in East L.A. and the Escalon Head Start Center in Altadena, because, where do you find a school open during Fourth of July week? One of our staff gave demonstration Head Start on Science lessons at both sites. This way, they would be able to experience pre-K education in the U.S. and also see Head Start on Science being used in a genuine school setting.” Ritz explained.

“To complete the rest of our five-day workshop, we ran through the Fourth of July,” he continued. “On Thursday evening we took them to Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach, built a bonfire and cooked hot dogs and corn on the cob, which they loved. It was a joyful time! Our staff willingly gave up their Fourth of July in order to complete the workshop with our visitors, ending with a Saturday pizza luncheon on campus. Our visitors also loved after-workshop shopping excursions, and, on the Fourth of July, went to the Long Beach shoreline to see the fireworks.”

Ritz said the Chinese educators plan to demonstrate what they’ve learned to their colleagues and to children, but also noted that “Chinese education tends to be rather more formal. When I was asked to observe a middle school lesson in Chengdu during a conference there, children would stand at attention when responding. Our approach gets children involved in handling ‘critters’ and using magnifiers. We encouraged the Chinese to explore different approaches and they seemed excited about trying more open-ended practices when they return to China.”

He added that Wang Su will serve as director of a Head Start on Science dissemination center in Beijing, and “they have talked about establishing other centers in Nanjing, Liaoning Province, Shanghai and Shandong Province.” A larger contingent of Chinese educators may come to another special Head Start on Science workshop at CSULB next summer, and two of the project’s longtime workshop instructors may visit China this fall to conduct additional training.

“I’d love to be able to return to China in the future to see A Head Start on Science in use in kindergarten classes over there,” Ritz said.