International Research Collaboration to Advance Understanding of the Role of Embodied Interaction in Young Children’s Learning about Science in Informal Settings

The resurgence and growing recognition of the importance of early learning on national and global scales, coupled with rapid developments in sensing and interaction technology present new opportunities to investigate how pre-school children learn, communicate, and feel about STEM topics. Carefully designed pre-K learning opportunities have been shown to have immediate, positive impacts on individual learners as well as broader, long-term societal benefits. This project builds on such findings by pursuing research to improve the efficacy of STEM learning exhibits for young museum visitors.

Research will be conducted at six informal learning sites across the United States and United Kingdom, with the aim to enhance engagement with and understanding of science topics and concepts. This project further builds on basic research in psychology and neuroscience demonstrating that thinking is intertwined with the body’s interaction in the physical world. However, the precise means of applying these ideas to the design of effective informal learning environments are still emerging. The project embraces the position that evolving changes in knowledge can be developed and revealed in many ways, including through body-based movement. Science learning is therefore viewed not only through verbal expressions, but also includes the representations formed through gesture and nonverbal signals such as gaze, facial expressions, pointing, and more. Research will be conducted with a diverse population of children and will explore the application of embodied learning to communities who are underrepresented in STEM.

Project outputs will include the creation of new tools and techniques for analyzing embodied learning in informal settings, empirical-based design guidelines for applying embodied learning to exhibit design, and the formation of an international community of early learning educators and researchers working together to focus on embodied pre-K science learning.

A major objective of this project is the development of a new research model in which practitioners and researchers partner to advance understanding of how preschool children explore, communicate, and learn in STEM through body-based activity. During a 3-year period, researcher-practitioner teams across a diverse set of six museum sites will collaboratively investigate the links between body movement and learning outcomes at selected STEM exhibits. Research activities will involve iteration and refinement of new instruments and protocols, through analysis of observed and automated capture of interaction data, and synthesis and interpretation of data.

A design-based research methodology will be applied to address three key questions:

1) What elements of sensory and action experiences are key to informing design exhibits that aim to exploit embodied interactions for learning;

2) What is the role of bodily enactment /gestures in assessing children’s understanding of science concepts/ cause and effect relationships;

3) What cross-cultural differences in kinds of embodied engagement emerge. Video and audio data of approximately 400 children’s exhibit interactions will be collected. Pre/post semi-structured interviews will be conducted with a third of these participants. The interviews will focus on children’s understanding of relevant science concepts as well as their reflections on their physical and emotional experience engaging with the exhibit.

This project will raise awareness of embodied approaches to learning as well as build stronger collaborations between informal STEM educators and cognitive researchers. Utilization of informal and formal dissemination networks will support wide diffusion of project outcomes. This is critically important given strong evidence pointing to the impact of preschool education in underserved populations, and ongoing national efforts by the US and UK to improve the quality of preschool learning experiences.

For any further details about Move2Learn project, please contact Cheryl Juarez (US) or Claire Sowton (UK)