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

September 15th, 2015 - August 31st, 2019 | PROJECT

Nationally, there is tremendous interest in enhancing participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Providing rich opportunities for engagement in science and engineering practices may be key to developing a much larger cadre of young people who grow up interested in and pursue future STEM education and career options. One particularly powerful way to engage children in such exploration and playful experimentation may be through learning experiences that call for tinkering with real objects and tools to make and remake things. Tinkering is an important target for research and educational practice for at least two reasons: (1) tinkering experiences are frequently social, involving children interacting with educators and family members who can support STEM-relevant tinkering in various ways and (2) tinkering is more open-ended than many other kinds of building experiences (e.g., puzzles, making a model airplane), because it is the participants' own unique questions and objectives that guide the activity. Thus, tinkering provides a highly accessible point of entry into early STEM learning for children and families who do not all share the same backgrounds, circumstances, interests, and expertise. This Research-in-Service to Practice project is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program which seeks to advance new approaches to, and evidence-based understanding of, the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments. The project will take place in the Tinkering Lab exhibit at Chicago Children's Museum. The research will investigate how reflective interactions between parents and children (ages 6-8) during tinkering activities ultimately impact child engagement in STEM. Design-based research (DBR) is well-suited to the iterative and contextually-rich process of tinkering. Using a DBR approach, researchers and museum facilitators will be trained to prompt variations of simple reflection strategies at different time points between family members as a way to strengthen children's engagement with, and memory of these shared tinkering events. Through progressive refinement, each cycle of testing will lead to new hypotheses that can be tested in the subsequent round of observations. The operationalization of study constructs and their measurement will come organically from families' activities in the Tinkering Lab and will be developed in consultation with members of the advisory board. Data collection strategies will include observation and interviews; a series of coding schemes will be used to make sense of the data. The research will result in theoretical and practical understanding of ways to enhance STEM engagement and learning by young children and their families through tinkering. A diverse group of at least 350 children and their families will be involved. The project will provide much needed empirical results on how to promote STEM engagement and learning in informal science education settings. It will yield useful information and resources for informal science learning practitioners, parents, and other educators who look to advance STEM learning opportunities for children. This research is being conducted through a partnership between researchers at Loyola University of Chicago and Northwestern University and museum staff and educators at the Chicago Children's Museum.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

Poster - Advancing Early STEM Learning Opportunities Through Tinkering and Reflection
Learning about Learning: The Story Behind the Story
Making museum memories
Engineering an Engineering Experience
7 Design Strategies to Increase STEM Learning
Poster - Tinkering and Telling: Reminiscing about STEM Learning Experiences in a Children’s Museum
Poster: Parent-Child Narrative Reflections about Engineering Projects Made in a Children’s Museum
2019 AISL PI Meeting Poster: Tinkering Reflection and Engineering Learning
Conversational reflections about tinkering experiences in a children’s museum
Reflection: A Tool to Deepen Learning and Make It Visible
Tinkering With Testing: Understanding How Museum Program Design Advances Engineering Learning Opportunities for Children

Team Members

David Uttal, Principal Investigator, Northwestern University
Tsivia Cohen, Principal Investigator, Chicago Children's Museum
Catherine Haden, Principal Investigator, Loyola University of Chicago
Perla Gamez, Co-Principal Investigator, Loyola University of Chicago


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: ISE/AISL
Award Number: 1515788
Funding Amount: 293959

Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: ISE/AISL
Award Number: 1515771
Funding Amount: 207565

Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: ISE/AISL
Award Number: 1516541
Funding Amount: 366470


Audience: Elementary School Children (6-10) | Families | Middle School Children (11-13) | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Art | music | theater | Education and learning science | Engineering | Technology
Resource Type: Project Descriptions
Environment Type: Making and Tinkering Programs | Museum and Science Center Programs | Public Programs