Gender research on adult-child discussions within informal engineering environments (gradient): Early findings Conference

Cardella, ME, Svarovsky, GN, Dorie, BL et al. (2013). Gender research on adult-child discussions within informal engineering environments (gradient): Early findings .

cited authors

  • Cardella, ME; Svarovsky, GN; Dorie, BL; Tranby, Z; Cleave, SV


  • Exploring the gender differences in how children develop early interest and understanding in engineering can provide useful information for the ongoing efforts to address the low numbers of women who pursue engineering careers. By the time girls reach middle school, they are already much less likely to be interested in STEM careers than boys are, especially for fields that are math-intensive such as physics and engineering. This lack of interest has been connected to a narrow and often inaccurate view of the engineering profession and the perceived misalignment between what engineers do and what girls value in future careers. Informal learning environments can play a pivotal role in inspiring today's youth to pursue careers in STEM. These contexts have been shown to be powerful and transformative settings in which young people can begin to cultivate lifelong interest in -And understanding of - A broad range of STEM topics. Moreover, informal learning environments often allow for parents and children to collaboratively engage in STEM learning, which may be particularly important in fields like engineering where parents have been shown to play a critical role in career choice. The purpose of the Gender Research on Adult-child Discussions within Informal ENgineering environmenTs (GRADIENT) study is to explore gender differences in the development of early engineering interest and understanding. In particular, the project closely examines parent-child conversation within a range of informal engineering contexts that exist at the intersection of parents, children, and meaningful STEM learning. In this study we examine a pre-school program where parents and children can play with engineering-focused toys, a family-oriented engineering event for elementary students and their parents, and an engineering exhibit within a science museum. This paper focuses on the first setting, the pre-school program where parents and children play with toys to engage in engineering-related activities. Drawing from the literature on both engineering education and informal science education, video-recordings from 30 daughter-parent dyads are analyzed for informal engineering learning in two ways. First, we investigate the parent-child discussions that occur during engineering activity using the lens of Islands of Expertise, a theory developed by Crowley and Jacobs (2002)1 that suggests short instances of explanatory talk between parents and children within informal environments can form lasting linkages between interest and understanding over time. Second, we investigate specific engineering behaviours exhibited by the parent-child dyads. Preliminary findings suggest that both parents and children re-frame the design task that is given to them to add more context to the task. Iteration varies widely across the parent-child dyads, and examples of optimization also vary across the parent-child dyads. These findings provide insights into how what engineering thinking might look like for young children (aged 4-6 years) as well as insights into the types of engineering-related activities that may be engaging for young girls. ¬©American Society for Engineering education, 2013.

publication date

  • September 24, 2013