David Uttal Receives Grant for Early STEM Learning Museum Project

David Uttal Receives Grant for Early STEM Learning Museum Project

child building with blocks

A young child’s “playful tinkering” may lead to much more serious interest in science later on in life. That’s the rationale behind professor David Uttal’s new collaborative project to advance early learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Uttal received a $636,503 grant from the National Science Foundation for “Collaborative Research: Advancing Early STEM Learning Opportunities Through Tinkering and Reflection.”

The research will focus on the Tinkering Lab exhibit at the Chicago Children’s Museum with children ages six to eight and their families. Uttal’s collaborators in the project are Catherine Haden and Perla Gamez of Loyola University and Tsivia Cohen of the Chicago Children’s Museum.

Their project will investigate how reflective interactions between parents and young children during tinkering activities ultimately impact children’s engagement in STEM. STEM skills, which emphasize critical thinking and problem solving, are seen as critical to progress in the 21st century, and a shortage of STEM workers is widely predicted.

“Providing rich opportunities for engagement in science and engineering practices may be key to developing a much larger cadre of young people who grow up interested in and pursue future STEM education and career options,” says Uttal. “One particularly powerful way to engage children in such exploration and playful experimentation may be through learning experiences that call for tinkering with real objects and tools to make and remake things.”

According to Uttal, tinkering has the advantage, first of all, of being social, which means that it affords teachers and family members the opportunity to offer support and reinforcement. Also, tinkering may draw in children because it is more open-ended than most other building activities.

By investigating reflective interactions between parents and children, the study will provide evidence-based direction on how to promote STEM engagement and learning in informal science education settings. The information and resources from this project will be useful for informal science learning practitioners, parents, and other educators who want to advance STEM learning opportunities for children.

At Northwestern University, Uttal is a professor of education and of psychology. A Learning Sciences program faculty member, he focuses his research on cognitive development, spatial cognition, symbolic development and mathematical thinking.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 2/3/16