“OK everyone, what are we doing today? We are building a wagon. And then what are we going to do?” asks Devin Hennigan, an educator for Discovery Space, a science center located in State College, Pennsylvania.
“Color it!” say the preschool-age children sitting in a semicircle on a colorful mat. The children and their parents are working with Hennigan during a weekly “Science Adventures” class at Discovery Space.
Hennigan skillfully guides the class through Bear Buildz, a program being developed by Penn State researchers with funding from the National Science Foundation. The multidisciplinary $1.2 million project, titled “Designing Innovative Guided Play Experiences to Empower Parents and Engage Preschool-Age Children in STEM Learning,” aims to help parents teach their 3- to 5-year-old children science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills while also developing their social and emotional skills.
After Hennigan reads a story about the adventures of bears who cooperate to build a wagon to carry their apples, the child-parent duos eagerly open packages on their desks and begin building their own apple-filled wagons by coloring, cutting, counting and reading together.
While the apple wagons are under construction, Discovery Space volunteer Allison Lukac, a Penn State junior majoring in elementary and early childhood education, models questions the parents might ask their children to promote scientific inquiry.
For example, when 4-year-old Reagan L. held out a long string, Lukac asked, “Is that string bigger or smaller than you?”
“Bigger!” Reagan replied enthusiastically.
“How could you make the string smaller?” prompted Lukac.
“Cut it!” Reagan replied.
“We’re tapping into kids’ natural abilities to be good scientists and thinkers,” said Meg Small, assistant research professor of health and human development and director for social innovation at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Penn State.
“These are not traditional STEM toys. Many STEM toys don’t intentionally structure parent-child interactions in ways that allow the child to lead and question. The Bear Buildz toys scaffold this important process.”
The Bear Buildz stories spark the children’s imagination and ask them to consider how the bears are feeling as they overcome challenges together, Small added. Each of the six weekly classes is progressively more challenging and culminates with building a tree house.
Empowering parents to prepare children for future careers
Today’s children will need STEM and social and emotional skills when they start their careers, Small explained.
“They will enter a world where scientific and technical innovations are rapidly increasing, but the value of these innovations to society will require a workforce with high levels of adaptive skills — the ability to ask the right questions, take perspectives and communicate ideas,” said Small.
The researchers on the project videotaped the classes so they could further examine how the Bear Buildz materials encourage parents to interact with their children in ways that foster math skills and scientific thinking through play, creativity and encouragement. They also are surveying the parents who attended the Science Adventures class to find out if they are continuing to teach their children with the Bear Buildz materials at home.
Small said the Penn State team will work with Discovery Space through next spring to co-create the Bear Buildz materials, with the goal of eventually offering the program in science centers nationwide.
Discovery Space has been partnering with Penn State professors for a decade, as a living laboratory for research on learning, especially with children and families, according to Michele Crowl, executive director of Discovery Space.
“We are so grateful to Discovery Space for partnering with us to quickly get our program out into the community,” said Small. “We hope to create something great for families in the State College area and beyond.”
Along with Small, the research team includes principal investigator and Evan Pugh University Professor Karen Bierman, director of the Penn State Child Study Center housed in the Department of Psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts; Evan Pugh University Professor Lynn Liben, director of the Cognitive and Social Development Lab in the Department of Psychology; and College of Engineering faculty members Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, and Scarlett Miller, associate professor of engineering design and industrial engineering. Jennifer Connell, family social worker in the Child Study Center, serves as the project coordinator.