Collaborative Research: Advancing Early STEM Learning Opportunities Through Tinkering and Reflection

Project: Research project

Project Details


This is a Research in Service to Practice proposal. The focus is on advancing early STEM learning opportunities for young children through tinkering and reflection. The research will take place in Tinkering Lab at Chicago Children's Museum (CCM), with the primary aim of building new knowledge and an evidence base for practice at CCM and informal learning institutions more generally. Tinkering can be defined both as a mindset and an iterative process of learning that is characterized by exploration and playful experimentation. Tinkering exhibits and programs are rapidly being integrated into informal settings, such as children's museums. Indeed, there is considerable enthusiasm about tinkering, given its potential to support early engagement in scientific and engineering practices even before children encounter them in school. Informal learning experiences during tinkering may be a particularly important targets for research and educational practices that advance early STEM learning because (a) they involve a combination of hands-on engagement with objects and conversations with others (e.g., parents, siblings, museum facilitators), and (b) provide opportunities to engage in scientific and engineering practices in a way that center on participants’ own questions and objectives. Tinkering can provide rich and engaging STEM learning opportunities that are highly accessible for young children and families. Intellectual Merits. Visits to museums and other informal learning environments often play a formative role in the development of interest in STEM. In recalling what led them to enter a STEM career, scientists and engineers often cite visits to museum, zoos, aquaria, and other informal learning environments. Moreover, many specifically mention building and tinkering as experiences that contributed to their scientific and engineering interests and skills. In this proposal, we seek to take critical next steps in advancing early STEM learning opportunities for young children and their families. We will investigate different practices in CCM's Tinkering Lab and shed light on how the potential for learning made possible through tinkering can be realized for diverse learners. We will ask critical questions about what practices support STEM-rich tinkering, and how opportunities for families to step back and reflect on and make meaning of their learning may significantly enhance STEM learning from tinkering. We are well positioned to be successful in this effort, as it will extend and strengthen the nearly 10-year-long partnership between the researchers and CCM, and leverage CCM’s unique location in downtown Chicago, diverse general visitorship, and long-standing community partnerships with organizations that serve low-income families. Broader Impacts. The proposed research would have substantial broader impacts for informal educators and for society more generally. There is tremendous interest in enhancing participation of STEM, but little of this work focuses on practices that promote STEM learning opportunities for young children and their families. However, we know that young children are capable of authentic STEM learning in supported interactions with others, and starting early could help provide a much larger cadre of students who are eager and able to learn STEM concepts. What is needed is research that can address questions that museums - including CCM - have been asking about how to spark rich patterns of engagement in STEM learning among families who do not all share the same cultural backgrounds, home language, economic and e
Effective start/end date9/15/158/31/20


  • National Science Foundation (DRL-1515788)


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