How to create an interest for STEM fields in children

Varsha Jagdale
Sep 6, 2017 · 11 min read

This NSF funded project was an attempt by Georgia Tech’s CAT Lab (EduTech lab), University of Georgia(Virtual Experiences Lab) and Atlanta Children’s museum to help solve the STEM pipeline (more Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics jobs, less qualified people) problem in the United States. Our focus was introducing children to STEM areas through informal learning spaces such as museums. I had wonderful advisors and co-researchers — Dr. Betsy DiSalvo, Dr. Carrie Bruce, Kayla DesPortes and Auzita Irani.

I focussed on a part of a larger research effort. I conducted a multi-method study (literature review, observations, interviews) and discovered factors (parent-child conversations, child’s knowledge and varying interest and more) that could potentially help create an awareness of STEM areas through the museum exhibit.

Combining insights from all sources, I created a design concept — leveraging smart phone to provide cues for parent-child conversations about the exhibit. The cues would be contextualised and personalised based on the child’s interest, age and experience with the exhibit. The cues would connect STEM exhibits to its real world applications and non-STEM exhibits to the involved STEM concepts. The design concept further explored the learning experience for the repeat visitors and the extension of the museum learning experience to a child’s home.

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9 million

That’s the number of STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs predicted for year 2022 by U.S. Department of Labour, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014)

However, not enough people are pursuing STEM careers to meet the high job demand[1]. The US economy is facing the STEM pipeline problem. The question is,

How to get more people interested in STEM ?

One potential solution is to create an interest in STEM at an early age, affecting the career choices later. Interest begins with awareness. Awareness of how STEM concepts are not abstract but integrated in our daily lives. How it is not that easy or evident.

After all, how many of us think of a see-saw as a simple machine?

1. Narrowing down the problem scope

Children can be introduced to STEM through multiple avenues — formal settings such as school or informal settings such as museum, daily conversations or media and at multiple ages[2,3]. We choose to focus on museums and children in the elementary age group. Rephrasing the earlier question,

How can STEM awareness be created in younger children through informal settings of museums?

We partnered with Atlanta Children’s museum for field work. We spoke with the manager to understand their approach for creating an interest in STEM. They did have STEM exhibits but they weren’t being used as intended. For instance,

“The tools for solution exhibit uses hands-on approach to gain child’s attention and create interest in STEM.

There is an informational board which is a part of the exhibit which shows the use of simple machines in real life. But in the past studies museum studies we observed that children and parents utilising the exhibit as intended by the museum exhibit curator.”

The question became,

How do we better design STEM exhibits? How can we help the visitors engage with a STEM exhibit in a way as intended by its curator?

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1. Tools for solutions exhibit 2. Information about simple machines

2. Research Plan

Next step was to see for ourselves the exhibits and visitor interactions and understand the prior related research.

Some questions were,

How do children interact with STEM and non STEM exhibits?

What type of interactions do the children have with their co-visitors and why?

What are distinct aspects,if any, of STEM and non STEM exhibits?

How does learning happen in museums? What are key influencers?

Ideally, we would have conducted contextual inquiry in the museum. But we didn’t have the necessary IRB approval. Neither, could we wait for the approval because the museum was to be shut for renovation by that time.

Instead we choose to,

  1. Conduct fly-on-the-wall passive observations and literature review in parallel (before IRB approval)
  2. Interviews with parents (out-of-context, after the IRB approval)

3. Literature review and insights

We ended up reviewing literature from areas such as HCI, learning sciences and museum design.

We used keywords — museum exhibit design, technology in museums, learning in museum, co-visitor interaction in museum, children’s museum, STEM learning, parent’s role in museum, how children learn and so on to find the relevant literature. It was a time consuming process. The keywords were later influenced by our museum observations.

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Most notable insights,

For a positive learning experience in the museum, parent-child conversations are crucial. Children do not have enough cognitive maturity to understand abstract concepts in the exhibit on their own [4, 5]. But the child’d base knowledge can be augmented through meaningful conversations with a co-visitor (who most often is a parent). This is centred around Lev Vygotsky’s concept of Zones of Proximal Development. ZPD simply means what a learner can do with guidance.

Child’s interest elevate parent-child conversations. Crowley and Jacob’s concept of island of expertise [6] suggest that children’s strong interests and deep knowledge in one areas can be used to promote learning in other areas. For instance, an interest and knowledge about dinosaurs can be used as a context to teach evolution.

4. Passive (Fly-on-the-wall) observations and insights

To understand the distinction between STEM and non-STEM exhibits and visitor interactions, I conducted passive observations.

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1. Atlanta Children’s Museum Map. 2. Exhibit Categories. 3. Photos of the exhibits
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I observed children and their co-visitors one exhibit at a time. One observation was defined as the interactions between the time a group (with at least one child) up to an exhibit and to the time they left. To randomise, I visited the museum on different days and times of the week and choose every second group to observe.

4.1 Observation framework

I documented the exhibit content, number of visitors, their characteristics (approximate age..), interactions with each other and the exhibit

4.2 Data Collected

5 visits. 10 exhibits (5 STEM, 5 Non-STEM)

2 hours per exhibit. 20 hours of total observation.

68 observations (31 STEM, 34 non-STEM). A sample observation,

A boy (around 5) is at the recycling exhibit alone. The exhibit has touchscreen based game to classify trash into recyclable and non-recyclable objects. He taps the screen a few times, seems bored and leaves.

4.3 Analysis

The observations were classified using open-coding. Different classification themes emerged

STEM and non STEM
child accompanied (with parent, grandparent, other children) or alone
exhibits with and without technology
exhibits that afford single or group interactions

Challenge was define what a “good” or “meaningful” engagement with exhibits meant.

Our approach was to consider an engagement good enough if it led to visitor conversation was about the content (the curator’s intent) — a first step to actual learning. It would have been presumptuous to infer the level of actual learning without speaking with the visitors, understanding their background or knowledge levels or intentions.

We were interested in discovering the generic broader themes and left understanding the finer details to the next round of research — interviews.

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Analysis (Observations were categorised into exhibits into STEM and non-STEM and subcategories). Apologies for the color-scheme ;)
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Failure and Success are not to be taken at the face value because of the involved moving parts such as visitors’ background or knowledge levels or motivations (couldn’t be assessed just using passive observations)

4.4 Insights

  1. There was no particular order in which the exhibits were visited. We noticed children running from one exhibit to the other, whatever they found to be more attractive. On average, children had a very short attention span.
  2. Overall, visitors didn’t engage with STEM exhibits (as intended by the curator) as compared to non-STEM exhibits. STEM exhibits didn’t seem enable “meaningful” conversations as compared to the non STEM, especially when the child was alone.
  3. Adult visitors used phones for a variety of purposes (taking photo, talking or just being busy with it)
  4. May be there was no need to distinguish between STEM and non-exhibit. Non-STEM exhibits were also a good examples of STEM applications, as indicated in this observation,

A girl, at the playhouse kitchen, places the plastic-food on a plastic-pan and puts it on the stove. Covers it with a lid. Her mother is besides her and is chatting on her cell phone.

The cover helps build up the pressure (a science concept) reducing the cooking time. This action could have been potentially used to teach the concept of pressure by asking a simple question “Do you know why we cover the pan with a lid while cooking?”

5. Interviews and insights

Part 2 of research was to chat with parents to understand

What are parent’s intentions and goal for visiting the children’s museum? Are they able to achieve those goals? Why or why not?

How often do they visit the museum?

How much engaged are the parents in their child’s education?

How interested and knowledgeable are they about STEM areas?

Do they want their children to be interested in STEM? If yes, what efforts are they taking in that direction?

How do they typically interact with their children in the museum?

How were their past experiences in the museum? What were the difficulties faced especially with the STEM exhibits? What type of help did they need?

What happens after the museum visit?

What were their child’s interest areas?

5.1 Method

Ideally, we would have loved to see the parent-child interaction in the museum, but it was closed for renovation. So we used a toy-set of gears as an interview prop. It had a number of similarities to the “tools for solution” museum exhibit. We asked the parents to show how they might interact with gear if it were a museum exhibit. We noted their interaction and conversations. Later, we asked our research questions.

We recruited participants through mailing list of the museum who had at least one child in the age group of 5 to 8.

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Interview Prop: Toy Gears

5.2 Analysis

8 hours of video recordings were transcribed, coded and clustered to generate themes. We studied

18 Families — Both parents in 2, Father in 1, Mothers in 15

24 Children — 15 Girls 9 Boys. Age 5 to 8

1 Asian, 5 African American & 12 Caucasian families

5.3 Insights

  1. Most parents, despite not having background in STEM themselves wanted their children to develop an interest for STEM areas and that is one of the motivations behind museum visits.
  2. Parents were engaged in their child’s learning, they had annual membership to the museum and choose to volunteer in our study.
  3. Despite the level of engagement, we observed (in the gear play activity) as well as heard from parents that sometimes they found it difficult to have a engaging conversation about the exhibit content.
  4. Parents used smart phones to find more information on the exhibit but often failed. “If I want to know something, I don’t look for a docent.I just Google ”
  5. They found STEM exhibits to be too abstract for the real world. This suggest that mediation is more necessary for such topics, helping parents and children make personal connections with the exhibit.
  6. Parents also had difficulty matching the cognitive ability of their children and the content they engaged them with especially if it is new, for example the call and repeat of colours they used to engage their children with the gears was something all of the children had already mastered.
  7. Children’s changing areas of interest Aligning with the literature review, we found that children do have area of interest (island of expertise). However, it is not necessarily fixed.
  8. Some times parents and children talk about the experiences at the museums even several days after the visit.
  9. They are repeat visitors to the museum and a run a risk of children getting bored with the same content.

6. Combining insights to form a design concept

Data from literature review, observations and interviews either cross-validated each other or ended us giving up new insights.

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Combining insights from all three methods

Combining insights from all sources, I created a design concept — leveraging smart phone to provide cues for parent-child conversations about the exhibit. The cues would be contextualised and personalised based on the child’s interest, age and experience with the exhibit. The cues would connect STEM exhibits to real world applications and non-STEM exhibits to STEM concepts. The design concept further explored the learning experience for the repeat visitors and the extension of museum experience to the child’s home.

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7. Reflection

In our proposed design concept, creating and maintaining relevant content would be the most challenging task.

To understand the problem well, knowledge needs to be combined from multiple areas. For instance, in this case, HCI, learning sciences, and museum design.

Though we got a lot of insights from our research methods, contextual inquiry would have given us potentially richer insights.

Working with children requires patience, time and techniques to keep them entertained. A colouring book worked like a charm for us; but alas only for some. :)

We studied a self selected population who cared enough about learning to visit museums. To reach the bigger goal, of getting all children interested in STEM, the right question to ask would be,

How to get those children interested in STEM whose parents don’t or can’t send them to museums or schools?

8. References

  1. Sanders, M. (2009). STEM, STEM education, STEMmania. Technology Teacher, 68, 20–26.
  2. National Research Council. (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. In R. A. Duschl, H. A. Scheingruber, & A. W. Shouse (Eds.), Committee on science learning Kindergarten through eighth grade. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  3. National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. In P. Bell, B. Lewnstein, A. W. Shouse, & M. A. Feder (Eds.), Committee on learning science in informal environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  4. Jean Piaget. 1970. Piaget’s theory in PH Mussen.
  5. John W. Santrock. 2007. A topical approach to life-span development. McGraw-Hill.
  6. K. Crowley and M. Jacobs. 2002. Building islands of expertise in everyday family activity. In Learning conversations in museums. Citeseer, 333–356.

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