Awareness of a STEM discipline is a complex construct to operationalize; a learner’s awareness of a discipline is sometimes viewed through the lens of personal identity, use of relevant discourse, or knowledge of career pathways. This research proposes defining engineering awareness through a learner’s associations with engineering practices - fundamental processes involved in engineering such as identifying criteria and constraints, testing designs, diagnosing issues and assessing goal completion. In this study, a learner’s engineering awareness was determined by examining 1) their ability to name or identify the engineering-related practices and processes they used, 2) associating those practices and processes with engineering, and 3) reporting that those were practices and processes that engineers use.
This research was conducted in a large science center in the Pacific Northwest and capitalizes on science center exhibits as unique family learning environments in the interest of promoting and strengthening family engagement and engineering learning. Participant selection focused on girls ages 9–14 and their families, ensuring the inclusion and influence of members of Latino communities (Spanish speaking and bilingual English/Spanish). Data were collected at three different design challenge exhibits. Engineering awareness was measured using three items on a visitor survey administered following a groups’ exhibit experience and through interview responses which were coded for mention of the words design, engineering and a list of associated practices. Participants were given the option of completing the survey and interview in English or Spanish.
The study found that participants overwhelmingly reported that they were doing engineering at exhibits; however, in open-ended responses from the interview, most groups simply implied or named specific engineering design practices rather than use the term engineering. The words building, testing, and improving designs were reported more frequently than words such as defining a problem, making a plan, or completing a challenge. The type of responses about using engineering practices varied by type of exhibit which suggests that different exhibits might encourage respondents to engage in, or recognise that they are engaging in, some engineering design practices more than others.
This work proposes an operational definition to measure learners’ awareness of engaging in engineering practices. This definition and the instruments and methods developed to measure awareness in this way are contributions to the larger conversations on this topic in the field. Findings from this study offer insights into how learners identify engineering-related practices and how they associate those practices with engineering. As part of a five-year, federally funded project, the result of this work informs the development of new design challenge exhibits, and the instruments and methods will be used in a second research study to explore how these new exhibits and the addition of staff facilitation impact visitor use and awareness of engineering practices.
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