Loyola Psychology Professor Presents Research at Congressional Exhibit

Children play at the Skyline Exhibit at the Chicago Children’s Museum by building brightly-colored skyscrapers with their parents.  The exhibition is designed for parents to share this experience with their children and to simultaneously reflect on the process.  Meanwhile, Dr. Catherine Haden, professor of Psychology at Loyola, studies these interactions in order to understand how to encourage families to increase understanding and interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields through informal (outside of school) learning experiences.

On May 7, Dr. Haden and her research partner, Dr. David Uttal of Northwestern University, participated in a Congressional exhibit and reception on Investments in STEM Research and Education where they discussed their research with White House leaders, and Members of Congress and their staffs, including Illinois lawmakers Senator Mark Kirk, Representative Randy Hultgren, Representative Jan Schakowsky, and Senator Dick Durbin.  The exhibition was the 19th Annual Coalition for National Science Funding Exhibition and Reception. The theme was Investments in STEM Research and Education: Fueling American Innovation.  Dr. Haden also met one-on-one with congressional staff members to talk about the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), the National Science Foundation, and its funding in institutions in Illinois.  Below is a summary of some of the questions we asked Dr. Haden about her exciting research.

How did this project come about?

I started working with the Chicago Children’s Museum around seven years ago, and through that work I have become really interested in how to encourage families to increase children’s understanding and interest in STEM through informal learning experiences.  Some of this work is being done in collaboration with David Uttal, and we have received grant funding from NSF for our collaborative work. The research focuses on how parent-child conversational interactions during hands-on activities impact children’s STEM learning, and whether these conversations help children remember what they’ve learned and apply it to new situations.

Can you explain why STEM is important to research?

We know that there’s been a lot of attention paid in recent years to the decrease in the number of U.S. students interested in STEM subjects; The National Science Foundation refers to this as “the STEM education problem.”  The key problem is that there really aren’t enough students going into STEM fields to meet the job demand in the U.S. in these areas.  It is important to ask how to start early in generating interest in these subjects before children even reach school age.

How important is it to participate?  What are the benefits?

If you ask a scientist anecdotally what got them interested in their field, they will usually tell you about some childhood event or project that piqued their interest.  Early exposure to these kinds of activities can generate interest in these fields.  Our study focuses not just on interest, but also on skill.

When children build a skyscraper with the materials in the exhibit and learn a simple engineering principle like bracing it, we want to know if they can later use that information to solve another building problem.  Would they be able to do the same thing they did with the skyscraper?  If children learn through conversations with their parents, would they be able to use the knowledge they’ve acquired days later in another project?  By asking these kinds of questions, we can help parents develop their child’s interest and skill in important subjects.

How early should you start?

Our research focused on children between four and eight.  We are studying topics that wouldn’t be covered in formal school until much later.  Some of the first kinds of experiences children have with science are informal educational experiences.

What previous research have you done on the subject, and how did that affect the current approach?

The current work intersects with another branch of my research program focused on how parent-child conversations after an experience can affect what children understand and remember about their experiences later on.  Some of the events parents chose to reminisce about with their children in my early work included visits to the museum.  I identified differences in the ways the parents approached the conversations.  Families who engaged more in conversational approaches were able to remember much more both immediately after and much later.  Parents who asked their children naturally open-ended questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) and encouraged engaged conversations had children who were able to recall their experiences and what they’d learned much better.

How clear/compelling was the evidence at the end of this study?

We are still in the process of collecting data.  We have a little over another year of support from the NSF, and summer is the best time to collect data from the museum.  We will probably have another 150 families participate in the study this summer, and we already have 240 families in the study.  We have found that there is a correspondence between what parents are talking with their children about in the museum and what those children are able to do with that information later on, like building a structure or fixing a structure afterwards. We are also finding some more general effects of conversation on children’s STEM learning.

The kinds of conversations that are most effective featured elaborative dialogue and making associations.  Children who were engaged in rich conversations in the museum are better able to recall what they learned in the museum and use them at home.

What has been the reception to your research—particularly at the Congressional Exhibition?

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.  We had many people come by our exhibit and talk with us about our research.  I met a Senior Legislative Assistant for Senator Mark Kirk who is also a Loyola alumnus.  We heard great feedback from a lot of folks from the NSF, different governmental organizations, and other researchers.

In terms of global impact, why is developing interest in STEM subjects important?

The need for a STEM workforce and a scientifically, mathematically, and technologically literate populace in the US is becoming even greater as other nations continue to make rapid advances in science and technology. As President Obama has said “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world” (State of the Union, January 25, 2011). To compete in the global economy, we need to both prepare and inspire children to learn STEM, and in the process motivate many of them to persistently pursue STEM careers. This effort must start early.

 

Dr. Haden received her PhD at Emory University, and has been with Loyola University’s Psychology Department since 1997, where she directs research projects in The Children’s Memory and Learning Lab.