According to a new study, children think they have less access to common measurement tools and toys around the house than their parents do. This was the unexpected result Megan Ennes and co-investigator Gail Jones discovered just before launching a year-long program to boost science engagement among minority and low-income families in the southeastern U.S.
“We wanted to support families because parents and caregivers are the first people who help children understand how the world works,” said Ennes, assistant curator of museum education at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “If parents never talk about science, then it can be harder for kids to envision themselves as scientists, and it can hinder them from pursuing science degrees and careers.”
The same idea goes for science-related tools, says Ennes. Education researchers have known for decades that a child’s exposure to scientific tools and activities is directly correlated with their interest and success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as adults. Children who regularly interact with measurement tools such as thermometers, maps and rulers are more likely to feel proficient at using them when the same tools are introduced at school. This allows them to build expertise in a subject more quickly than their peers.
Children with more access to these tools also tend to use them more creatively, tinkering with them in new and inventive ways. A ruler might be used for its intended purpose to measure the length of an object, or it might be converted into a springboard in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine. This familiarity creates raw generative power that can sustain their initial interest in science and the natural world far beyond adolescence.
“Out-of-school tinkering with materials plays an important role in developing the self-confidence to learn science and construct a science identity,” said study co-author Gail Jones, alumni distinguished graduate professor of science education at North Carolina State University.
So when Ennes and Jones partnered with three museums in North Carolina to host a science engagement program, they made sure to ask families which common tools they owned. They also asked them to indicate how often they participated in a number of activities to gauge the extent to which they engaged with STEM-related content and ideas.
But Ennes and Jones included a component in their pre-screening of participants that hadn’t been widely used in prior studies. She distributed identical surveys to both children and parents, rather than one or the other, as had been the norm up to that point. Individual family members filled out separate surveys simultaneously, with parents often reading along with their children and helping them understand the prompts. Their disparate perspectives surfaced when it came time to choose the appropriate answers.
“The inspiration for this study was entirely accidental,” Ennes said. “We may not have thought to look at this at all had it not been for some parents who we observed telling their children to change the answers because they were incorrect. A child would answer, ‘No, we don’t have measuring cups at home,’ and the parents would correct them, saying they did.”
Rather than having children amend their surveys, Ennes instructed participants to leave their original responses so she could analyze the differences between the two groups.
“It got us thinking about the fact that children may technically have access to certain science tools at home, but do you really have access to something if you don’t even know you have it?”
The survey results revealed a wide gap between the tools parents knew they had lying around the house and those their children had encountered. None of the averages for perceived access to 20 common science-related tools or toys matched between the two groups. More parents than children reported having access to 17 of the items listed, and the opposite was true in only three cases.
Complex or seldomly used tools, such as health monitors and thermometers, were the most often omitted by children, but this pattern was also true of simple items like rulers and even Lego bricks. 72% of parents reported owning a yard stick compared to just 40% of children surveyed.
Parents additionally reported spending more time engaged in activities like reading maps, using a ruler, and building or taking items apart than their children.
According to Ennes, this discrepancy puts children at a disadvantage.
“Self-efficacy and one’s perceived ability to be successful at a task has a lot to do with whether you’ve done it before,” she said. “Having prior experience with these tools can really help set kids up for success down the line, even if it’s by doing something as simple as showing them how to use measuring cups while cooking dinner.”
The problem of children’s lack of perceived access isn’t difficult to solve, says Ennes. Rather, it persists because it goes on unnoticed by both parents and researchers.
“Much of this simply involves making a conscious effort to engage children in these activities and with these tools that are likely already in the home. This is a very valuable, yet low-cost, low-effort way to help support kids’ interest in science.”
The authors published their study in the journal Research in Science Education. Gina Childers of Texas Tech University, Emily Clayton of Campbell University and Katherine Chesnutt of Appalachian State University are also co-authors.