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Gender Research on Adult-child Discussions within Informal Engineering Environments (GRADIENT): Early Findings

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Starting Them Early

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.635.1 - 23.635.13



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Paper Authors


Monica E Cardella Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Monica Cardella is an assistant professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She is also the director of Informal Learning Environments Research for the Institute for P-12 Engineering Learning and Research (INSPIRE). She conducts research on undergraduate engineering students' design and mathematical thinking in formal and informal contexts in addition to research on how children develop engineering thinking in informal learning environments.

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Gina Navoa Svarovsky Science Museum of Minnesota


Brianna L Dorie Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Brianna Dorie is a doctoral candidate in Engineering Education at Purdue University. Her research focuses upon how young children engage in and learn about engineering in informal environments, especially through the use of media.

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Gender Research on Adult-child Discussions within Informal Engineering Environments (GRADIENT): Early Findings (other topics)Exploring the gender differences in how children develop early interest and understanding inengineering can provide useful information for the ongoing efforts to address the low numbers ofwomen who pursue engineering careers. By the time girls reach middle school, they are alreadymuch less likely to be interested in STEM careers than boys are, especially for fields that aremath-intensive such as physics and engineering. This lack of interest has been connected to anarrow and often inaccurate view of the engineering profession and the perceived misalignmentbetween what engineers do and what girls value in future careers.Informal learning environments can play a pivotal role in inspiring today’s youth to pursuecareers in STEM. These contexts have been shown to be powerful and transformative settings inwhich young people can begin to cultivate lifelong interest in –and understanding of – a broadrange of STEM topics. Moreover, informal learning environments often allow for parents andchildren to collaboratively engage in STEM learning, which may be particularly important infields 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 ENgineeringenvironmenTs (GRADIENT) study, a collaboration between researchers at a museum anduniversity, is to explore gender differences in the development of early engineering interest andunderstanding. In particular, the project closely examines parent-child conversation within arange informal engineering contexts that exist at the intersection of parents, children, andmeaningful STEM learning. In this study we examine a pre-school program where parents andchildren can play with engineering-focused toys, a family-oriented engineering event forelementary students and their parents, and an engineering exhibit within a science museum. Thispaper focuses on the first setting, the pre-school program where parents and children play withtoys 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 learningin two ways. First, we investigate the parent-child discussions that occur during engineeringactivity using the lens of Islands of Expertise, a theory developed by Crowley and Jacobs (2002)that suggests short instances of explanatory talk between parents and children within informalenvironments can form lasting linkages between interest and understanding over time. Second,we investigate specific engineering behaviours exhibited by the parent-child dyads: instances ofproblem framing, iteration, and optimization. Preliminary findings suggest that both parents andchildren re-frame the design task that is given to them to add more context to the task. Iterationvaries widely across the parent-child dyads, and examples of optimization also vary across theparent-child dyads. These findings provide insights into how what engineering thinking mightlook 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.Crowley, K., & Jacobs, M. (2002). Building Islands of Expertise in Everyday Family Activity. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 333-356). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates Inc.  

Cardella, M. E., & Svarovsky, G. N., & Dorie, B. L. (2013, June), Gender Research on Adult-child Discussions within Informal Engineering Environments (GRADIENT): Early Findings Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19649

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