Engagement Course with Children's Museum Tucson Inspires UA Students

The UA team from the engaged learning course at the Children's Museum Tucson. (Photo credit: Anna Augustowska)
A linguistics-engaged learning course teaches UA students about informal science learning, the relationship between poverty and education, and working with children.

A group of University of Arizona students – all of them enrolled in an engaged learning course – recently held an event that involved community members in a series of playful exercises meant to engage young childen in scientific inquiry at the Children's Museum Tucson.

With funding supported by a UA's 100% Engagement intiative, a team led by UA linguist Cecile McKee designed and built a mobile exhibit with science games, such as "Move Your Mouth." Students this semester used the mobile exhibit to help children learn how their mouths to make three vowel sounds while practicing scientific processes, such as gathering information to help them make new hypotheses about those sounds.

In working with children and families of different ages and backgrounds, the UA students learned skills such as accommodation, awareness, flexibility, patience and spontaneity.

"I’ve always wanted to work with kids. After taking the course, I’m now sure I want to work with kids," said Lexie Sorrentino, a UA psychology major. "I loved the course and learned a lot. I learned to be patient with the kids. I learned to pace myself because some of the kids will pick it up faster than others."

Such is the intention of the 100% Engagement initiative, a unique teaching and learning drive at the UA meant to directly connect classroom instruction with workforce experiences.

The course, taught by McKee through a partnership with Autumn Rentmeester, the development and operations director for Children's Museum Tucson, also included survey-based research.

Children between the ages of 2 and 8 who were accompanied by a parent or legal guardian could participate in that research. In these situations, one UA student engaged with the child, and a second student helped the parent take the survey on an iPad.

Hillary Van Alsburg, the director of philanthropy and learning for Children's Museum Tucson, said she is excited by the collaboration.

"We love partnering with the UA. Students in the class came in every single week and they did a ton of work," Van Alsburg said. "The research will help not just the museum but the whole community."

The students also recorded the children's progress in completing the games to assess if learning was occurring. They asked the parents to indicate whether their children looked like they were having fun.

"We try to explain to the parents about learning through play," said McKee, who is also the associate dean for research in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. "The parent can observe that the child is enjoying the game. At the end, we ask the kid what they learned and the parents get to hear that. The parents are perceiving that a child can be playing a game and learning at the same time."

The team also found that more than 50 percent of the families surveyed by the class had a household income of less than $45,000 year – not surprising given Tucson's rank as the nation's fifth-poorest large city. In the course, the UA students also read about and discussed the relationship between poverty and education.

Preschool education is often unaffordable for families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Places such as the Children's Museum Tucson offer another way to enrich a child’s early education.

"The readings were important to help us understand the relationship between the museum and the community," said Hannah Zedek, a UA linguistics and psychology major. "The role of the museum in the community is exposing children to these science ideas in a fun way. By learning about achievement gaps we were able to see the impact our work would have."

Noemi Rodriguez, also a linguistics major, said having learned a great deal in the course, she "found my calling" and intends to work in the nonprofit sector. "I want to help address specific issues that are happening in neighborhoods that are at an economic disadvantage."

Lisa Winslow, a UA anthropology and linguistics major, said she took the course hoping to learn more about early childhood education and in the process became a fan of engaged learning courses.

"I absolutely loved the class, and I’m really sad that it’s is coming to an end," Winslow said. "Book learning is great, but once I leave the classroom, I might or might not take that knowledge with me. With this course, I can say that I gained experience and skills, and I can take that with me for future endeavors."

Genesis Grijalva, an anthropology and Hispanic linguistics double major, was a coordinator for the course. Grijalva worked with McKee last semester helping to design and pilot the project along with Elly Zimmer, a doctoral candidate in the UA Department of Linguistics.

"Cecile has high expectations, and she’s challenged me," said Grijalva, a first-generation college student. "Just from being around her and seeing the work that she's doing, I'm now thinking of applying to a Ph.D. program."