Collaborative Research: Head Start on Engineering: Developing a Learning Community to Study and Support Family-level Interest in Engineering

September 1st, 2019 - August 31st, 2023 | PROJECT

There are several critical reasons to understand and support interest development in early childhood: (a) as a primary motivator of engagement and learning; (b) interest development in preschool predicts important learning outcomes and behaviors in early elementary school; and (c) early childhood interests motivate ongoing interest development. Thus, there is growing recognition that interest is not just important but fundamental to education and learning. Head Start on Engineering (HSE) is a multi-component, bilingual (Spanish/English), family-focused program designed to (1) foster long-term interest in the engineering design process for families with preschool children from low-income backgrounds and (2) support family development and kindergarten readiness goals. The HSE program, co-developed with the Head Start community, provides families with developmentally appropriate, story-based engineering design challenges for the home and then connects these to a system of strategically aligned Informal STEM Education (ISE) experiences and resources. This current project, HSE Systems, builds on a previous HSE Pathways project which (a) established that participating families develop persistent engineering-related interests; (b) highlighted the value that the Head Start community has for the program and partnership; and (c) generated a novel, systems perspective on early childhood interest development. The aim of HSE Systems is to develop and test a model of early childhood STEM engagement and advance knowledge of how the family as a system develops interest in STEM from preschool into kindergarten.

Through the Design Based Implementation Research (DBIR) process, the team will iteratively refine and improve the HSE program and theory of change using ongoing feedback and data from staff, families, and partners. It is also designed to explore program impacts on family interest development over a longer period, as children enter kindergarten. The DBIR work will focus primarily on the program model questions, while the case study research will focus on the family interest questions, with both strands informing each other. The initial work is organized around a series of feedback and design-testing cycles to gather input from families and other stakeholders, update the program components and activities in collaboration with families and staff, and prepare for full implementation. During the next phase, the team will implement the full program model with six Head Start classrooms and track family experiences and interest development into kindergarten. During final implementation phase, the team will finish data collection, conduct retrospective analysis with all the data, and update the program model and theory of change.

This project will directly address the AISL program goals by broadening access to early childhood informal STEM education for low-income communities, with a focus on Spanish-speaking families, and building long-term skills and learning dispositions to support STEM learning inside and outside of school. Beyond the topic of engineering, HSE supports Head Start school readiness and child and family development goals, which are the foundation of lifelong success.

This project is funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which supports innovative research, approaches, and resources for use in a variety of learning settings.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

2021 Poster - How can we go beyond broadening access to disrupt systems of inequity in STEM education?
Interest Catalysts: The Unique Ways Families Connect with Program Experiences to Support Long-Term STEM Interest Pathways in Early Childhood
Head Start on Engineering
Activity Design Principles that Support Family-Based Engineering Learning in Early Childhood
Engineering for Equity: Exploring the Intersection of Engineering Education, Family Learning, Early Childhood, and Equity
2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 1906409

Team Members

Scott Pattison, Principal Investigator, TERC Inc
Gina Navoa Svarovsky, Co-Principal Investigator
Cynthia Smith, Co-Principal Investigator
Annie Douglass, Principal Investigator, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry
Veronika Nunez, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 1906409
Funding Amount: $738,505

Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 1906433
Funding Amount: $204,474


Access and Inclusion: English Language Learners | Ethnic | Racial | Hispanic | Latinx Communities
Audience: Families | Learning Researchers | Museum | ISE Professionals | Pre-K Children (0-5)
Discipline: Education and learning science | Engineering
Resource Type: Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: Informal | Formal Connections | Pre-K | Early Childhood Programs