Identifying Elements of Engineering Design Activities that Foster Underrepresented Children's Engagement in Engineering in Informal Learning Institutions

Sunday, September 1, 2019 to Tuesday, August 31, 2021
Resource Type:
Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: 
Public Programs, Making and Tinkering Programs, Museum and Science Center Programs, Exhibitions, Museum and Science Center Exhibits
Elementary School Children (6-10) | Middle School Children (11-13) | Families | Museum/ISE Professionals | Learning Researchers
New York Hall of Science

Informal learning institutions, such as science centers and museums, are well-positioned to broaden participation in engineering pathways by providing children from underrepresented groups with motivational, self-directed engineering design experiences. Though many informal learning institutions offer opportunities for young visitors to engage in engineering activities, little is known about the specific features of these activities that support children's motivation in engineering design processes such as problem scoping, testing, and iteration. This project will address this gap and advance foundational knowledge by identifying features of engineering design activities, as implemented within an informal setting, which support underrepresented children's engineering motivation and persistence in engineering tasks. Researchers at New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) will observe children interacting with families and museum educators as they engage in different engineering design activities in NYSCI's Design Lab, an exhibition space devoted to hands-on exploration of engineering design. They will also survey and interview the children and their caregivers about these experiences. Analyses of these data sources will result in a description of features of design activities foster motivation and task persistence in engineering design. Findings will be disseminated nationally to other informal learning institutions, which in turn can use the knowledge generated from this project to create motivational, research-based, field-tested engineering design experiences for young visitors, especially for children from underrepresented groups. The experiences may encourage children to further pursue engineering pathways, resulting in a diversified engineering workforce with the potential to drive and sustain national innovation and global technological leadership. 

This project uses the framework of goal orientation, defined as learners' self-reflection of why and how they engage in tasks, to understand whether, how, and why underrepresented 7-12-year-olds engage in engineering design activities in an informal learning institution. Though previous research has suggested that goal orientation is strongly, positively related to learning and motivation in formal settings such as schools, research in informal settings has not robustly accounted for the role of goal orientation in participants' engagement with learning tasks in these unique learning environments. To better understand how children's goal orientations contribute to their motivation in engineering in informal learning institutions, researchers will answer the following research questions: (1) What are underrepresented children's goals and goal orientations while participating in engineering design activities in an informal setting? (2) What contextual factors--including facilitation strategies, materials, task relevance, and social interactions with family members--may support or discourage the adoption of different goal orientations? (3) How do goal orientations relate to children's learning experience in the engineering design activities and the likelihood that they will test and iterate their solutions? These questions will be answered through a mixed-method research study conducted with approximately 200 families, with children aged 7-12, recruited from underrepresented groups. Semi-structured clinical interviews, conducted with 20% of the children and their caregivers, as well as observations and surveys gathered from all families, will provide information on the children's goal orientation and engagement as they relate to specific engineering design activities. Qualitative content analyses and multilevel structural equation modeling will result in findings that will be disseminated widely to other institutions of informal learning. Ultimately, this project will generate new empirical knowledge regarding the features of engineering design activities in informal learning environments that increase engineering engagement and motivation among underrepresented children, thereby broadening participation in engineering pathways.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Funding Program: 
EHR Core Research
Award Number: 
Funding Amount: 

Team Members

ChangChia James LiuChangChia James LiuPrincipal Investigator
Dorothy BennettDorothy BennettCo-Principal Investigator
Katherine CulpKatherine CulpProject Staff

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