Exploring the gender differences in how children develop early interest and understanding in engineering can provide useful information for the ongoing efforts to address the low numbers of women who pursue engineering careers. By the time girls reach middle school, they are already much less likely to be interested in STEM careers than boys are, especially in fields that are math-intensive such as physics and engineering. This lack of interest has been shown to be commonly connected to two things: a narrow, inaccurate view of the engineering profession, and the perceived misalignment between what engineers do and what girls value in future careers.
Informal learning environments, where learners spend a great deal of time and have more freedom in choosing the topics they study and immerse themselves in, have been shown to be powerful and transformative contexts in which young people cultivate lifelong interest and understanding around STEM topics over time. Institutions for informal science learning, such as science and technology centers, are wildly popular and visited by over 50 million people in the United States every year. These settings often allow for parents and children to collaboratively engage in STEM learning, which may be particularly important in fields like engineering where parents have been shown to play a critical role in career choice.
The Gender Research on Adult-child Discussions within Informal ENgineering environmenTs (GRADIENT) project seeks to explore the development of early engineering interest and understanding for girls by closely examining parent-child conversation within museum-based informal engineering learning settings. In particular, the study context focuses on a pre-school program where parents and children can play with engineering-focused toys and engage in different aspects of the engineering design process. The study investigates how the structure of the activities and the conversations between parents and children during these experiences can support or inhibit the development of engineering interest and understanding for young girls. Findings from the study will seek to highlight productive ways of fostering early engineering learning that can be informative for both STEM educators and parents.