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Learning in Informal Environments

group meeting

INSPIRE researchers explore how people learn not only in school settings but also out-of-school settings: everyday activities, interaction with family members, visits to science centers, and play with toys and games.

INSPIRE Projects

For more details on individual projects, select one from the following:

Toys, games and books can support children’s early development of knowledge and skills related to engineering as well as science and mathematics. Research has shown many of the toys, games and books that support engineering learning are more often purchased for boys than for girls. Through the Engineering Gift Guide, the INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering is raising public awareness of the many toys, games and books that promote engineering learning and are fun for both boys and girls.

Website: https://engineering.purdue.edu/INSPIRE/EngineeringGiftGuide

Questions/Comments/Feedback: Contact Elizabeth Gajdzik at egajdzik@purdue.edu or 765-494-9599


Partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota

Research Questions:

  • What are the different ways that adults interact with their children while engaging in informal engineering learning experiences?
  • What gender differences exist in the way adult females and males interact with their female children during these experiences?
  • How are gender differences affected when learning environments are infused with connections to personal and societal issues (context)?

Activity and Sample:
Three different informal engineering learning environments
Parents with children aged 3-11
Parents and children engage in the engineering design process and use engineering vocabulary

Frameworks and Instruments:
Islands of Expertise framework,  Adult-Child Interaction Inventory, Selinda Model of Visitor Research


Partnership with WGBH-Boston

Research Questions:
How do informal engineering programs (such as DESIGN SQUAD) support engineering-related learning over time (i.e., engineering pathways), specifically among middle school students?  What is the profile of students who benefit the most?  How much and what types of exposure support positive outcomes?  What engineering pathways do children pursue after informal programs?

Activity and Sample:
60 middle school students, 30 in MA and 30 in IN, their parents, teachers and affiliated informal educators
Provide students with online educational resources and activities

Framework, Instruments, and Analysis:
Motivational Framework:  Bandura’s Social Cognitive Career Theory
Data collection:  Semi-structured interviews and surveys over three years
Analysis:  Case study and coding of interview transcripts


As people engage in real-life situations, they draw from their full knowledge base and skillset. Integrating science, engineering, mathematics, computational thinking and literacy in educational experiences for pre-college students can better prepare students for real-world situations while also allowing teachers to add engineering and computing to the school day without diminishing their focus on mathematics and literacy. At the same time, we know children only spend about 18% of their waking hours in formal school environments -- thus we can promote learning by capitalizing on the time spent in out-of-school settings and making connections across school and out-of-school settings.

In this project, we integrate computational thinking into the PictureSTEM curriculum (which integrates STEM+literacy), develop extension activities to further support computing learning, develop science center exhibits, and develop resources for parents to help K-2nd grade students learn engineering design and computational thinking skills while also developing proficiency in mathematics, science, and literacy.

At the same time, we develop assessment frameworks, tools and approaches and conduct research on the student learning that takes place in the school and science center settings. Specifically, we investigate:

  • What does student learning look like in an integrated STEM+C school-based environment?
    • What does integration of STEM+C in K-2 classrooms look like?
    • How do K-2 students demonstrate engineering thinking in the refined PictureSTEM+C curriculum? (and How is this different from the ways K-2 demonstrated engineering thinking with the original Picture STEM curriculum?)
    • How do K-2 students demonstrate computational thinking in the refined PictureSTEM+C curriculum?
  • What does student learning look like in an integrated STEM+C informal learning environment?
    • What does integration of STEM+C in a science center look like?
    • How do K-2 students demonstrate engineering thinking as they engage with the STEM+C exhibits?
    • How do K-2 students demonstrate computational thinking as they engage with the STEM+C exhibits?
  • In what ways (if at all) do students make connections across the school and science center (and potentially other) settings?

Partners include:
New Community School , Glen Acres Elementary School, Imagination Station, WBAA Public Radio and the Covenant Homeschool Corporation.