STEM learning between caregiver and child in a museum

Thursday, 7 August, 2014

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Why? Without realizing it ourselves, our choices in the future can be determined by our pasts and the interests that were fostered when we were children. This can be important especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and fields because there are not enough people pursuing careers and opportunities in these fields to meet the demands.

STEM learning between caregiver and child in a museum

Catherine Haden and colleagues studied how effective a facilitated educational program in a children’s museum was for promoting conversations between caregiver and child and teaching the child about STEM subjects.

The wh-questions and how they impact learning

Prior studies have shown that caregivers who ask more wh-questions when talking to their children have children with higher understanding, retention, and memory of personal experiences. What are the wh-questions? These are open-ended questions which start with who, what, when, where, why, or how. These questions have been shown to call attention to details and help determine what the child knows. In this experiment in particular, if the adults followed instructions to ask their children wh-questions, the children showed better understanding and learning. If the children could not answer a question, it could lead to the parent giving an explanation which also contributed to STEM learning for the child.

The experiment

Observations took place at the Skyline building exhibit at the Chicago Children’s Museum. Researchers asked family to participate if they had one target child between the ages of four and eight. The families were given a task to complete – build a sturdy skyscraper in an interactive hands-on exhibit. They had fifteen minutes to do this, and after they had finished this part of the task, they moved on to the computer kiosk, where they could select six pictures to tell a photo narrative of their building process. Photos were taken throughout the fifteen minutes which they had to build.

Families were placed in different experimental groups randomly – some had a person dressed up as Inspector Sturdy who gave them a hint about triangles, others had that plus a hint given to parents to ask wh-questions, and another group had a researcher come up and ask if they would like to participate in the study, but no hints given. During the building activity, the families were recorded on video, and these videos were coded using The Observer software.

STEM talk and sturdiness

What were the researchers looking for at the end of each session when they looked over the videos? A key thing that they noted was the frequency of STEM talk by the adults. According to this experiment, STEM talk had five parts. First, the scientific method or talking about plans or any of the steps included in the scientific method. Second was technology and the mention of the building materials. The next two both related to engineering – one to the tip given by Inspector Sturdy to some of the families that triangles will make a structure sturdy and the other referring to basic engineering ideas, such as tightening the bolts.

Finally, math was also part of stem talk, by referring to numbers, amounts, or measurements. Researchers also looked for building sturdiness and STEM talk after the building session during the photo-narrative to see how much information the children were retaining.


The evidence presented in this study does suggest the adult caregivers do engage in informal STEM-related learning activities. Due to this, STEM understanding is supported in children. This experiment was limited to a museum, but it has shown that giving the caregivers information in a museum can help them teach their children STEM. Future research could look into STEM learning outside of a museum setting and how giving information there impacts the child’s STEM learning.

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  • Haden, C.A.; Jant, E.A.; Hoffman, P.C.; Marcus, M.; Geddes, J.R.; Gaskins, S. (2014). Supporting family conversations and children’s STEM learning in a children’s museum. Early Childhood Research Quarterly29, 333-344.