NSF CAREER Award looks at how play impacts engineering aspirations
Can the way children play with toys influence whether they become engineers as adults? That’s what Purdue Assistant Professor of Engineering Practice Ruth Wertz, Ph.D., wants to explore with her National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project, which studies how interaction with Legos and other building toys may help to enhance young learners’ spatial skills and shape the early engineering identities of young children.
The project called “CAREER: Bricks & Blox Building Academy: Developing Spatial Skills & Engineering Identity through Embodied Play,” was awarded to Wertz last year through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) prestigious CAREER program for early-career researchers. Through this investment in Dr. Wertz’ research, NSF supports its mission to expand our understanding of how people become engineers, throughout all life and career stages including childhood.
Wertz brings the study to the School of Engineering Education (ENE), which is charged with addressing the big questions and challenges facing the state and nation, including expanding the quality and availability of the engineering Workforce. The five-year project aims to enhance girls' involvement in engineering by fostering spatial skills and engineering identity through interactive play with building toys. It will use building toys such as Lego sets to examine the interactions between participants' expressed attitudes, family environment, and observed play behaviors.
“Many of today’s buildable toy sets are accompanied by their own backstory and adventure play scenarios to help set the scene and jumpstart the child’s imagination,” said Wertz, who is now an Assistant Professor of Practice in Engineering Education. “I am interested in how this new class of story-based building toys impact pathways into engineering, especially for girls. Do the different company-generated narratives help the players develop skills and self-concepts that are important for engineering? When children deviate from the standard play story, how do they do it and what drives the variations in play?”
Initially, Wertz’ team will involve children at the Valparaiso YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Northwest Indiana, but will expand to third, fourth and fifth graders as well as children in before/after school programs in the Greater Lafayette.
Through a combination of quantitative correlations, qualitative descriptions, and ethnographic observations, the study aims to provide comprehensive insights into strategies for promoting girls' participation in engineering-related activities.
About the Purdue School of Engineering Education
The School of Engineering Education (ENE) at Purdue University focuses on transforming engineering education based on scholarship and research, and envisions a more inclusive, socially connected, and scholarly engineering education. The first School of its kind the nation (established in 2004), Purdue ENE is a national and global leader of this emerging discipline, and maintains a strong research portfolio in pre-college, higher education, and engineering workplaces to advance the student experience as well as improve engineering education culture and workforce practices. Through scholarship, systematic research, policy development, and assessment, faculty researchers rethink the boundaries of engineering education as they address big questions in the areas of creativity, diversity, innovation, and social responsibility. At Purdue's West Lafayette campus, the School delivers three distinct yet complementary programs: First-Year Engineering, undergraduate degrees in Interdisciplinary Engineering Studies and Multidisciplinary Engineering, and a graduate program (Ph.D. and an Online M.S.) in Engineering Education.