Photo of the Child Study Center Team.
Published on: Apr 24, 2019

“STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] skills have not been a priority in early childhood education,” said Evan Pugh University Professor Karen Bierman, director of the Penn State Child Study Center housed in the Department of Psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts. “Preschool play helps children build the foundation skills that support later spatial thinking and numerical reasoning. But most STEM toys are marketed for boys, fueling a gender gap in STEM interests and skills that is evident by school entry.”

According to Bierman, traditional STEM toys such as puzzles and block models emphasize cognitive skills and limit parent-child experiences.

“This is a problem from a developmental standpoint. Parents play the role of instructor in these activities, directing children in finding the correct solution. We believe that supporting child skills like reasoning, joyful problem-solving, creativity and collaboration are just as important.”

This premise is the foundation for “Designing Innovative Guided Play Experiences to Empower Parents and Engage Preschool-Age Children in STEM Learning,” a $1.2 million project recently funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project focuses on enriching informal learning opportunities for parents and children in under-resourced and sparsely populated communities where access to children's museums and other informal learning institutions is limited. It seeks to understand how parents can play with their preschool children in ways that build children’s STEM skills while also supporting children’s social-emotional skills.

The project brings together a multidisciplinary research team including Bierman, who serves as principal investigator, and four other Penn State faculty members: Evan Pugh University Professor Lynn Liben, director of the Cognitive and Social Development Lab in the Department of Psychology; College of Engineering faculty members Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, and Scarlett Miller, associate professor of engineering design and industrial engineering; and Meg Small, assistant research professor and director for social innovation at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center in the College of Health and Human Development. Jennifer Connell, family social worker in the Child Study Center, will serve as the project coordinator. Bierman, Menold and Small previously collaborated on a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant focused on innovation and early learning environmnets.

“Building STEM skills early is critical for building the next generation of creative engineers and scientists,” said Menold, who is leading the design and production of the kits and toys being used in the study. “I see this as an opportunity to engage underrepresented groups in engineering and science early and start cultivating a passion for STEM through hands-on parent-child activities and imaginative play.” 

“We hope to create warm moments that families will love and that show positive learning outcomes,” added Small, who focuses on “human-centered design” and who also will be part of the project’s design team. “Social and emotional competencies, as well as STEM skills, are essential for students to succeed in 21st-century jobs.”

The three-year project began in fall 2018 with a discovery phase that included initial prototype design and testing of toys. Year two will involve refining play guides and pilot-testing their use at Discovery Space, the local children’s museum partner in this project. Finally, year three will involve testing the materials’ impact on child skill development.

“For at-home learning, you don’t want parents to always think of themselves as teachers but rather more like partners in solving problems and building creativity,” explained Bierman, adding that families in rural communities were chosen because they often lack access to museums and other resources that reinforce STEM skills.

“The engineers will focus on what the users need to solve the problem,” she continued. “From the developmental science point of view, we will ask ‘what characteristics of the play and what aspects of parent-child interaction foster the development of new skills?’” 

“Interdisciplinary efforts are the hallmark of Penn State’s research enterprise, and we are thrilled the NSF is funding such an important project, which combines the efforts of faculty members in three different colleges,” said Neil Sharkey, vice president for research. “The Child Study Center’s groundbreaking work on understanding and promoting STEM skill development in preschool children will help us in building the workforce of the future.”  

This is the first NSF grant for Bierman, whose research for the most part has been funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“The NSF world of informal learning is very interesting to me,” she concluded. “I am pleased they saw the potential in this interdisciplinary project, which we hope will ultimately help parent/child teams develop collaborative plans for problem-solving while also having fun.”