One of the biggest U.S. banks has committed $6 million over 3 years to a novel program aimed at increasing what preschool teachers know about science. The program targets a population of educators who typically avoid the subject--out of fear or ignorance--in preparing young children for school.
The new program, called "Growing Up Great with Science," is part of a 10-year, $100 million philanthropic effort  in early education begun in 2004 by the Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group. The PNC Foundation announced yesterday that it has funded 14 science centers (see the full list after the jump) in the mid-Atlantic region to train local teachers, help them with inquiry-based classroom activities, and arrange museum-based field trips. Bank officials, along with Elmo from Sesame Street, celebrated the launch of the program yesterday at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum—it’s one of the 14 centers and has received a 2-year, $384,000 grant to work with 20 preschool teachers, 20 aides, and 600 students from public schools in the District of Columbia.
There is a tremendous need for such training, says Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in Brunswick, New Jersey, and an advisor to the Growing Up Great program. Not only is the preschool teaching sector plagued by low salaries and high turnover, he says, but a recent working paper  by the institute points out that "preschool educators tend not to support mathematics and science learning" in their classrooms. Even if they did, notes the working paper, "little is known about effective teaching of mathematics in preschool, and even less is known about science." Barnett says he hopes the PNC grants will improve that situation by giving school district the opportunity to "see what works" and then to scale up successful models.
The new program will also deploy PNC employees as volunteers in their local schools. PNC Chairman and CEO James Rohr says the bank began Growing Up Great after employees chose children and education as their priorities for corporate philanthropy; the company decided to focus on preschool education. "We avoided the elementary and high school level because of all the competing interests," says Rohr. "But preschool was an area where we thought we could have an impact." He said nearly a quarter of the bank's 30,000 employees have spent time in local schools as part of existing projects.
Participating science centers and non-profit education organizations
• Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
• Delaware Museum of Natural History, Wilmington, Delaware
• Louisville Science Center, Louisville, Kentucky
• Maryland Science Center, Baltimore, Maryland
• Central Sanctuaries (Worcester Collaborative), Worcester, Massachusetts
• Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, New Jersey
• Cincinnati Nature Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
• Cincinnati Museum Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
• California University of Pennsylvania, California, Pennsylvania
• Tom Ridge Environmental Center, Erie, Pennsylvania
• Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
• Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
• Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
• Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Photo: Mark Avino/NASM, Copyright Smithsonian Institution