Design and Development: Research Exploring Activity Characteristics and Heuristics for Early Childhood Engineering (REACH-ECE)
Early learning experiences for children have the potential to make a lasting impression on a young person, and ultimately influence their interests, school trajectories, and professional careers. As such, there has been an increasing effort to understand what can make these experiences more or less productive for young people, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields that face ongoing challenges related to workforce development. A better understanding of what happens during and after early engineering activities - and in particular, what contributes to a productive and engaging experience for children between the ages of 3 and 5 - can inform the design of new activities and potentially catalyze greater interest and learning about engineering at a young age. This study seeks to add new knowledge in this area by exploring how and why different elements of engineering activities for young children might be more or less effective for early learners. In addition, the study also examines engagement and interest related to engineering at the family level, acknowledging the essential roles that parents and families play in the overall development of young children. Finally, this study includes a specific focus on low-income and Spanish-speaking families, thereby engaging with communities that historically have less access to early science and engineering learning opportunities and remain persistently underrepresented in these fields. In order to maximize the impact of this research, findings from this study will be shared broadly with parents, educators, and researchers from multiple fields such as engineering education, child development, and informal/out-of-school time education.
This study has the potential to have a transformative impact on engineering education by developing both educational products and conceptual frameworks that advance the field's knowledge of how to effectively engage young learners and their parents/caregivers in meaningful and productive engineering learning experiences. This study seeks to break new ground at the frontiers of early childhood engineering, specifically through a) articulating and refining a new integrated conceptual framework that weaves together theories of learning and development with theoretical constructs from engineering design and b) applying and refining this integrated framework when creating, implementing, assessing, and revising components of family-based engineering activities for early learners, particularly those from low-income and Spanish-speaking families. Unlike many other early childhood engineering programs, this project focuses on the family context, which is the primary driver of learning and interest development at this age. The study therefore provides an opportunity to advance the field by both helping young children build engineering skills and interests before starting kindergarten while also empowering parents to support their children's engineering education at a critical developmental period. Additionally, by enhancing parent-child interactions and supporting a range of early childhood development goals, this project will also contribute to efforts to decrease the persistent kindergarten readiness gap across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. The research ultimately supports efforts to increase the diversity of individuals who will potentially enter the engineering workforce.