Children have often been labeled as “natural engineers” whose curiosity about the world around them evokes comparisons to skills used by professional engineers and taught to undergraduate engineering students. Building towers out of blocks, taking things apart and figuring how things work are a part of childhood and have been considered to be precursors to engineering thinking.However there has been considerable debate around what engineering looks like for young children. Can young children engage in design and if so, what does that look like? How can we differentiate “design” (especially “modeling” or “create”) activity from normal everyday play?Several design models have taken into account the developmental stages of young children, but they often are based on assumptions and have minimal evidence.In the GRADIENT (Gender Research on Adult-child Discussions within Informal ENgineering environmenTs) study, a collaboration between researchers at a museum and university, we looked at how parents with young girls engage in two different engineering activities in informal settings. The first setting is a Preschool Play dates program for children 3-5 years old, where the parent-daughter dyads were asked to build a tower first out of familiar materials (foam blocks)and then out of unfamiliar materials (dado squares). The second setting is a pneumatic ball run that is part of an engineering exhibit at the museum and was focused on children 6-11 years old.In each setting, 30 dyads were video recorded, and the verbal and non-verbal segments were open and axially coded for engineering talk and action.We found that children engage in the engineering design process in ways that are similar to other models of the engineering design, that include problem scoping, idea generation, modeling,testing, evaluation and revision. We also found that children engage in both predictive and reflective behavior, and often add context to the problem. However, we want to acknowledge that the way children engage in engineering thinking is different from the way that adults do(especially with idea generation and revision) and we will discuss this further in the paper. This work lays a foundation for future research, as understanding how children engage in the design process can help us understand how children learn engineering design skills, and how people develop engineering design skills across pre-college, undergraduate, and professional practice.The work also has implications for the development of learning experiences in both school and out-of-school settings.
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