Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2016

David Uttal

“The maker movement engages people in a new culture of entrepreneurship where you can be your own designer and creator,”

- David Uttal

Leading Learning: Museums, the Maker Movement and More


By Marilyn Sherman
Leading Learning

The kids in the Tinkering Lab at the Chicago Children’s Museum choose from an intriguing array of materials as they make something that rolls. One girl winds wire around two tiny axles, and another races the wooden car she made down a track. An early experience with a makerspace, the exhibit offers an open-ended, hands-on environment to encourage creative scientific thinking.

The museum is better able to nurture early science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning because of a collaboration with SESP professor David Uttal and his research team. In this museum and other innovative learning environments, Uttal is pioneering new ways of fostering learning.

As museums seek to engage visitors and nurture their learning, researchers can help them think systematically about what to inves- tigate, test their assumptions and use data to shape their practices, according to Uttal.

Sparking STEM smarts

In the case of the Chicago Children’s Museum, Uttal sees the Tinkering Lab as an “opportunity for early STEM learning in a really fun way. This kind of learning often is one of the first introductions to engineering and math.” He and fellow researchers Catherine Haden and Perla Gámez of Loyola University are working with museum personnel, led by Tsivia Cohen, to assess children’s learning in the Tinkering Lab.

The researchers listen carefully to what kids say to their parents, meticulously coding the children’s conversation. “What young children talk about can be very revealing,” notes Uttal, a developmental psychol- ogist. “Activities and conversation are important to measure learning and engagement. That’s how memories are formed, especially for young children.”

Their study, conducted over four years and examining the interactions of 350 representative families, is clearly demonstrating development of STEM learning and engagement. “We see evidence of thinking about engineering principles in a simple but nevertheless real and important way,” Uttal says. For example, children show rudimentary understanding of engineering when they talk about how construction with triangles makes buildings strong. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the research is formalizing ways to study learning so that the museum can continue learning assessment.

Cultural concepts for kids

Museums are very interested in maximizing engagement and learning—with a special eye to the kinds of tools, questions and words to use in their exhibits. In an earlier museum project, Uttal and Haden studied the effectiveness of learning designs for an innovative, interactive children’s space at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

Following the Field’s educational goals, Uttal and his team assessed tools to engage families in their young children’s learning. For example, in place of signs with dense text, their research showed the power of simple cards with thought-provoking questions for parents to ask, such as “How is an arrowhead used?”—questions that lead to understanding of cultural ecology.

“It’s less important to get all the facts than to think about how to engage parents,” says Uttal. As various exhibits around the museum raise similar questions about cultural issues, including how to get food, shelter and warmth, children start to make connections. “They begin to see that all people face the basic problem of converting what the Earth can provide to what the body can use.”

Maker momentum

The maker movement that inspired the Tinkering Lab is a trend that Uttal finds interesting and relevant as a way to promote STEM learning and prepare people for employment. “The maker movement engages people in a new culture of entrepreneurship where you can be your own designer and creator,” he says.

Open makerspaces also allow people to make mistakes and learn from them as they test and refine their creations, according to Uttal. In addition, he is fundamentally interested in how “making” relates to spatial learning—his overarching research interest and special area of expertise.

It’s no surprise, then, that Uttal is gearing up for new makerspace projects. In one National Science Foundation-funded project, he and his fellow researchers aim to increase STEM learning while showing students real-life applications for academics like geometry. In another project focusing on the Center for Talent Development’s popular robotics classes, Uttal is looking at how children form mental models of the programs they are creating.

Spatial is special

For Uttal, the great untapped area for education is spatial learning, and he sees vast potential in becoming adept with maps, visualizations, GPS and other spatial tools for understanding the world. “I’m trying to help people think about spatial approaches to education,” he says. His vision emphasizes spatial learning in a variety of subjects ranging from engineering to history. Looking at these topics through a spatial lens helps students think about patterns, distributions and relations.

One of Uttal’s groundbreaking findings is that spatial skills can be taught. Because these skills are especially important in the STEM fields—an area of expanding employment—he is now studying the impact of spatial training on STEM achievement.

“We can make a big difference at any age, but it’s important that children get exposed at least by middle school,” he says. On the other hand, he insists that college is not too late to teach spatial skills, and he was impressed when he recently discovered a college offering a major in spatial learning.

With the influx of new technologies such as drones and layered maps, Uttal is currently exploring the use of geospatial technologies for learning. In fact, he recently won an award from the National Council for Geographic Education for an article on the topic. “Technologies are becoming really important,” Uttal says, ticking off a list of areas such as alternate energy sources, distribution, infrastructure and transportation where geospatial technology can make crucial connections.

At Northwestern this fall, Uttal will become the director of the Spatial Intelligence Learning Center. In that role, he will be guiding a movement on campus to increase knowledge about developing spatial intelligence. If he has his way, Northwestern will continue to put spatial intelligence “on the map.”