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Children's Experience With Construction Sets: Early Warnings Of Engineering Interest Among Girls?

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

The Pipeline

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.291.1 - 13.291.10

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Paper Authors


Cortney Martin Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Dr. Cortney Martin has worked in information design, usability, and education for over 15 years including serving as the Assistant Director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village and the Broadband Wireless Networking Director for Virginia Tech. She teaches as a part of an innovative interdisciplinary thematic four-course sequence focused on Earth Sustainability. Her PhD is in Industrial Engineering (human factors) from Virginia Tech.

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Tonya Smith-Jackson Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Dr. Tonya L. Smith-Jackson is an Associate Professor and Director of the Assessment and Cognitive Ergonomics Lab in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and at Virginia Tech. She received her Ph.D. from North Carolina State University in 1998.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Children’s Experience with Construction Sets: Early Warnings of Engineering Interest Among Girls?


This mixed-method study explored gender differences among children ages six and nine years as they worked with common interlocking building toys and their accompanying assembly instructions. There were no differences in the speed with which girls and boys assembled the toys; however the six-year-old girls were less accurate than the six-year-old boys. This difference disappeared by age nine resulting in similar performance levels. However, by age nine, girls reported having less fun than boys and they perceived assembly as more difficult. Girls tended to blame difficulties on themselves while boys were more likely to blame the instructions. The results highlight the importance of carefully selecting appropriate building and construction sets with well-designed instructions, particularly for girls, to encourage and not discourage them from participating in these important building and manipulative activities. It further suggests that STEM instruction methods for young girls should provide opportunities for girls to bolster their confidence with hands-on construction activities.


One early exposure children have to engineering principals and design is through interactions with construction models and building toys such as interlocking bricks, logs, and figures. The colorful, tactile objects awaken the senses and the mind, and promote motor, cognitive, emotional, and social development in children 1,2. Among all toy categories, building sets had the largest rate of sales increase at 16%, growing from $599.8 M in 2004 to $695.2 M in 2005 3.

Building kits also expose children to the language of graphical assembly instruction, which is becoming more ubiquitous largely because of globalization of product markets. Unfortunately, when instructions are difficult to follow, adults often think the fault lies with them and that they are not skilled or experienced enough for the task 4. How might this self-blame impact children, particularly girls, who in academic domains are more likely to attribute failure to lack of ability 5 than boys.

There is some empirical evidence that experiences with building toys can lead to enhanced spatial abilities that may influence aptitudes in math and science6,7,8. Based on the potential linkage between toy assembly and STEM areas, it is important to understand how boys and girls interact with instruction-based assembly to be sure both populations are being well-served.

There are few studies to draw from regarding children and object assembly and the literature presents conflicting evidence about the effects of gender. Murphy and Wood 9 in their study of four through eight-year-old children found gender differences to be far greater even than age- related differences between the four through five-year-olds and eight year olds. The results showed that girls paid more attention to the photo instructions, were far more efficient with operations, and performed the pyramid building task more quickly than the boys. The boys tended to use a strategy based on trial and error, with less reliance on the photos. The boys’ trial

Martin, C., & Smith-Jackson, T. (2008, June), Children's Experience With Construction Sets: Early Warnings Of Engineering Interest Among Girls? Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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