Museum Pairing Promotes Children's Scientific Exploration

UA linguist Cecile McKee is leading an applied research project in collaboration with Children's Museum Tucson involving children between the ages of 2 and 8.

University Relations - Communications

November 13, 2015


Children between the ages of 2 and 8 who visit Children's Museum Tucson with their families this fall are learning how to gather evidence and communicate their findings — essential elements of scientific research — under the guise of playful interaction.

Families can voluntarily participate in the informal science education project "Linguistics in Children's Museum Tucson," which is supported by new University of Arizona 100% Engagement funding and is evaluating a framework for teaching children science in an informal setting.

Led by UA linguist Cecile McKee, a multi-organization team of UA students and museum staff launched the evidence-based project, which supports English and Spanish speakers. The effort is partially driven by research indicating that children often learn best through play but that some parents believe that play is divorced from actual learning.

"We were trying to figure out how to coordinate with the museum, which is all about playful learning and sharing science with kids," said McKee, associate dean for research in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and co-principal investigator on the grant with Autumn Rentmeester at Children's Museum Tucson.

"Part of playing is about making choices and, with this project, the child gets to decide," said McKee, also a linguistics professor, who has facilitated similar informal science education projects at festivals, fairs and other events locally and across the nation. "We are really focusing on the children's engagement with science and the parents' involvement with their children."

The project is one of 19 strategic investments the UA Office of Student Engagement made during the spring of 2015, supporting collaborative teams across campus under the University's 100% Engagement initiative. 

The launch of the office and subsequent funding are products of the UA's Never Settle strategic academic and business plan, which also resulted in a formalized process by which students can receive an "Engaged Learning Experience" notation on their official transcripts. Also driving 100% Engagement is the priority to connect students with applied experience that makes them even more attractive to employers.

For the UA students involved, the project is an example of a community partnership activity that reinforces the civic and community responsibility competency, which encourages inclusive decision-making and issues-oriented problem solving, promoted under 100% Engagement. The UA students also are learning in real time how best to support people with different communication and educational needs. 

"I wanted to learn how to conduct research, so I really wanted to get experience working with a professor, and I also have had the opportunity to work with a Ph.D. student," said Genesis Grijalva, an anthropology major involved in the project. As part of the project, Grijalva works directly with Spanish speakers.

"I realize this opens me up to being flexible in what I will decide to do in the future," Grijalva said about the experience.

With the funding, McKee and her team designed and built a mobile exhibit with two educational games to help children learn how to develop hypotheses and explore homophones while relying on their own abstract thinking processes. Specifically, one game teaches children about the sounds of words; the other teaches them how to identify patterns in images.

As the children play the educational games, their parents or other family members fill out a survey to inform them about the importance of playful engagement, while gauging their interest in the project. The team also provides the families with materials to continue the activities once at home.

During one recent visit to the museum, 3-year-old Oliver took interest in the cart, which was displaying the game that teaches about speech sounds. On the cart were magnetic images of a boy and a girl, each missing the mouth. Nearby were three mouths, shaped as if each were sounding out "sue," "saw" and "see," which are three of the most common vowels in the world's languages, said Elly Zimmer, a doctoral candidate in linguistics.

Kneeling beside him, Zimmer asked Oliver if he could guess what sound each mouth was attempting to make. Staring intensely, Oliver began to guess, forming sounds with his mouth, attempting to match the images.

"It is amazing how quickly kids can pick things up when they are having fun," said Zimmer, whose dissertation work on early literacy development informed the structure of the interactions.

In addition to the engagement elements, the project also exemplifies Never Settle priorities to diminish boundaries between the UA and other communities, sharply encouraging interdisciplinary and multi-organizational collaboration.

"We both care about the same things and see that education is important for our little ones," said Rentmeester, the development and operations director for the Children's Museum Tucson. 

Rentmeester said the collaboration is mutually beneficial, as the museum and the UA share key values in expanding educational access and encouraging more broad-based community involvement in education. Also, she and McKee shared a motivation to determine ways to better involve children age 5 and younger in science.

"Education is necessary, and it is the key to a child's success," Rentmeester said. "Exposure to literacy, math and science are all very important before a child turns 5 years old."

Involving a core community-based educational resource such as Children's Museum Tucson also was important to McKee for other reasons.

The team is able to reach a diverse range of families, including minorities who are underrepresented in the science workforce and who come from low-income backgrounds. Such groups make up more than 40 percent of the museum's visitors each year.

McKee noted research indicating that poverty can greatly impact educational attainment, and that women and certain minority groups remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Additionally, access to preschool education — which helps improve literacy, numeracy, abstract thinking development, socialization and transition into kindergarten —is largely unattainable for families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

"It may be that people don't think science is right for them, so we hope to get kids excited about science using tools associated with language. We want them to be able to imagine themselves in science," McKee said.

"We are working to respond to the needs of the community, and we are hoping that the museum will be partnering with us on that for a long time."