The decrease in the number of US students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has received considerable attention in recent years. The National Science Foundation refers to this as the STEM education problem. This research explores one way to address the STEM problem, by studying how children develop interest and skill in STEM, even at a young age. The work will focus on the fact that many early STEM experiences for children are designed to encourage learning through hands-on activities, such as making models of buildings or other structures. Although children can learn a great deal by working on their own through these hands-on activities, their learning can be improved when they are engaged in conversations with their parents during these activities. With support from the National Science Foundation, Catherine Haden, Ph.D., of Loyola University Chicago and David Uttal, Ph.D., of Northwestern University will examine how parent-child conversational interactions during hands-on activities impact children's STEM learning. The researchers will also determine whether parent-child conversations and hands-on activities help children remember what they have learned and apply it to new situations. The research will take place in a special exhibit within the Chicago Children's Museum that was designed specifically to advance STEM learning. The exhibit focuses on building construction and includes hands-on activities that may promote early understanding of simple engineering principles, such as bracing, as well as more general principles associated with the scientific method. Across two studies, a total of 640 children, ages 4, 6, and 8 will observed building skyscrapers with their parents. It is hypothesized that specific kinds of conversations (such as those that involve What, How, and Why questions) will be linked to more hands-on activity, as well as more learning of engineering principles and a better understanding of the scientific method. An important test of this hypothesis is seeing how and when parents' conversations and children's hands-on learning during the first construction project results in better construction of a second structure (tower or bridge). It is also predicted that parents' talk and children's understanding will differ by age of the child. In Study 2, the researchers will attempt to teach parents the best ways to help their children's STEM learning, based on the findings of Study 1.
The research will contribute to understanding and improving young children's STEM education and learning. For young children, the learning of mathematics, science, and elementary principles of engineering is intertwined. Early exposure to fun, creative and meaningful engineering experiences may boost interest and the eventual pursuit of engineering and technology education paths by students. Exhibits stimulating building construction, for example, have the potential to connect children with the joys and challenges of the scientific process (building a building that will stand on its own), as well as the relevance of engineering to their everyday lives. The research will recommend methods that parents and other educators can use with young children in STEM learning situations to foster early understanding of the scientific method, develop knowledge of STEM-related concepts, and potentially increase interest in future science education and career options.