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Can Tinkering Prepare Students to Learn Physics Concepts?

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering Division: Engineering Alignment with Core Curriculum (Physics)

Tagged Divisions

Engineering Physics & Physics and Pre-College Engineering Education Division

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Paper Authors


Luke D. Conlin Stanford University

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Dr. Conlin is a postdoctoral scholar in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. His work focuses on the learning of engineering and science in formal and informal environments.

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Doris B. Chin Stanford University

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Dr. Chin is a Senior Research Scholar with the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.

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Tinkering involves open-ended exploration with materials, an approach that can create tension with science instruction in K-12 classrooms where the emphasis is often on instruction of specific content goals. However, the open-ended nature of tinkering aligns well with learning in informal settings such as maker spaces and museums, where learning is driven by visitors’ choices to pursue their own interests. We examine whether students who have tinkered on a museum field trip are better prepared to learn from a lecture on related science content once they return to their classrooms, capitalizing on the complementary goals of school and museums. We expected that tinkering activities would provide students with compelling experiences, questions, and unsolved problems that would lead naturally to a “time for telling” (Schwartz & Bransford, 1998).

In this study, 76 sixth-graders participated in one of two tinkering activities on a museum field trip. Some students (n=46) tinkered by building ramps on a pegboard-covered wall to carry marbles from top to bottom. The main challenge of the activity was getting the marble to stay on the track, in part because it would gain too much speed and fly off. Other students (n=30) tinkered by making objects out of inexpensive materials to float in (or fly out of) a vertical wind tube. The main challenge was getting the object to lift off the bottom of the tube and float stably.

In their classrooms two weeks later, all students took a brief assessment of their tinkering experiences, checking their understanding of the relationship between the slope of track and the speed of the marble, and the relationship between an object's shape and its stability in the wind tube. Then students watched a 20-minute video explaining physics concepts that were relevant to both tinkering activities: how to fall softly by decreasing momentum more gradually, and how to float stably by increasing surface area and utilizing curved surfaces. All students took a posttest on the concepts explained in the video.

While there were no overall condition effects on posttest performance, interactions on pre- and post- video questions by condition provide evidence of preparation for future learning. Students who had tinkered with marbles were able to accurately recreate the video’s abstract representation of increasing momentum, but only if they had answered the marble-relevant pre-video question correctly, F(3, 72)=3.21, p<.05. Likewise, students who tinkered with making things float in wind tubes accurately recreated the video's abstract representation of wind flowing around a curved shape, but only if they correctly answered the wind-relevant pre-video question, F(3,72)=3.23, p<.05.

These results suggest that students who tinkered were prepared to learn an abstract representation of the phenomenon, but only if they experienced the anticipated challenges. Students who tinker may be tinkering towards a different goal from the anticipated one (e.g., building an object that spins, rather than flies out of the wind tube), making it harder to anticipate which concepts tinkerers are prepared to learn, a challenge for future studies to address.

Conlin, L. D., & Chin, D. B. (2016, June), Can Tinkering Prepare Students to Learn Physics Concepts? Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26433

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