Understanding Space Through Engineering Design investigates how engaging K-5 children from underrepresented populations in the design of packages, maps, and mechanisms supports the development of spatial reasoning and spatial mathematics. The prime conjecture is that engineering design makes spatial mathematics more tangible and purposeful, and that systematic support for spatial reasoning and mathematics, in turn, influences the nature of children's designs and their understanding of how those designs work. The project, therefore, serves as a test bed to explore the promises and challenges of an integrated STEM education.
Research methods include intensive close-up study of small groups of children designers led by researchers, followed by larger-scale study of classroom implementations led by elementary teachers. The purpose of the work with small groups of students across grades is to enable the project investigators to learn about the accessibility, challenge, and interest that engineering design holds for youngsters and to inform subsequent steps in revising the instruction for classroom tryouts. The classroom implementations provide data about how engineering design supports mathematical growth and, in turn, how growth in mathematical understanding guides subsequent engineering design. As children design and share their designs, mathematical and engineering practices, such as definition, conjecture, and troubleshooting, emerge in classroom conversation, often when children compare variations in the artifacts that they create. Researchers seek relationships between the emergence of these practices and changes in students' learning; in this way, relations between doing and knowing can be established. Forms of data include video recording of episodes of student design and classroom conversations. In addition, researchers conduct interviews with students to assess their understanding of how the artifacts they create work. The interviews particularly emphasize the role that spatial mathematics plays in students' explanations of device function and in their accounts of design processes. The progress of the project, including curriculum development, interview construction, and data analysis will be overseen by a five-member advisory board that includes a evaluation specialist, a mathematician, a mathematics educator, and a design expert.
The project will contribute to a beginning knowledge base about how integrated STEM education can best be pursued, in particular, by exposing the possibilities and challenges inherent in the proposed emphasis on engineering design. By working closely with 18 teachers and their 500 students, the project investigators aim to develop a practical, yet powerful approach to iSTEM education, that is, a new study of integrated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Products include a website featuring a suite of curriculum materials, case episodes of children designing, and formative assessments of children's learning in contexts of everyday classroom activity.