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February 19, 2021 / News & Blog
By Natalie Bortoli, Tsivia Cohen, and Kim Koin, Chicago Children’s Museum; Catherine Haden, Loyola University Chicago; David Uttal, Northwestern University
When Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM) closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality of a prolonged closure soon hit home. Like all of our colleague museums, we needed to find a way to remain relevant to our community and carry out important aspects of our work.
One key initiative that needed to be sustained was our National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research-to-practice project: TALES (Tinkering and Learning Engineering Stories)1. A partnership between CCM, Loyola University Chicago, and Northwestern University, this project studies how narrative and storytelling during tinkering explorations impact families’ engineering learning. The project will result in empirically-based practices and resources that can be used to promote children’s learning about engineering in informal settings.
Central to our project is the exploration of different programmatic, facilitative, and environmental approaches in the museum’s Tinkering Lab. The Tinkering Lab is an open-ended workshop space where families use tools—such as drills, hammers, and saws; and materials—like wood, paper, and recyclables—to build, construct, and solve physical problems. With mounted cameras in the exhibit and microphones clipped to visitors who agree to be recorded, the researchers capture families’ actions and conversations and provide data about engagement in tinkering and engineering learning. Additionally, researchers interview families after tinkering to gain further insight into children’s learning.
The temporary closure of the museum presented a challenge to this project. How were we to continue this multi-layered research-to-practice work that depended on: 1) offering live, facilitated tinkering-based challenges, 2) conducting the work in an exhibit equipped with a variety of hands-on tools and materials, 3) observing and recording families’ actions and dialogue, and 4) listening to families’ narratives?
As the museum began to shift its overall programmatic work to virtual content, the TALES team saw an opportunity to also utilize this format to engage families in our research-to-practice work. The team embarked on developing a set of video invitations for families to engage in Tinkering-at-Home.
The Tinkering-at-Home programs, which will continue to be developed for the duration of the museum’s closure to the public, are presented by CCM’s Director of Tinkering Lab and other team members via pre-recorded videos. They are shared through social media, the museum’s website, and its YouTube channel. The videos invite families to develop creative solutions to problems using materials they have at home.
To capture and study the families’ actions, researchers make appointments with families who express interest in participating in our work to meet over Zoom. CCM works with several community partner organizations to promote the opportunity for families to participate in the research and to ensure a diverse sample. Working with one family at the time, the researcher plays the Tinkering-at-Home videofor the family, and then invites them to engage in the activity in front of the camera. Meanwhile, the researcher records the session so it can be used in subsequent analyses of families’ actions and conversations. When the family is done with the activity, the researcher asks key questions to capture the families’ narratives and to gain understanding of their process and thinking.
This method allows us continue our important research-to-practice work, while also providing ongoing ways to engage families in meaningful STEM learning at home. At the same time, the virtual research has allowed us to continue to test various prompts, questions, and methods that will inform our practices back in the Tinkering Lab once the museum is re-opened, in keeping with the original goals of the project. This will also ultimately allow us to compare Tinkering-at-Home explorations to in-person versions of the same activities in the Tinkering Lab exhibit: an added opportunity that has been made possible by the unique conditions.
A number of key findings have emerged from our transition to virtual practice, which may be useful for colleague organizations creating their own online programs or carrying out their own research projects using virtual platforms. Most significantly, we have found that transferring many of our existing best practices in facilitation and program design has been critical to our success. The following are some key tips and learnings other museums can use when creating virtual content:
Because our research project tests the impact of different interventions and approaches, we have also tested variables in our virtual programs as follows.
While the pandemic has placed new challenges before us and has required a different approach to engaging families in our research work, we have found that staying moored in our long-standing best practices for facilitation, program development, and research has enabled us to successfully transition our work. With this, we have been able to continue to both engage and learn from our participant families, and to collect data that will inform and strengthen our practices not only in the present, but in the post-COVID world as well.
1 This work is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. NSF #1906940 (LUC) 190196839 (CCM) 1906808 (NU).
Natalie Bortoli is Vice President of Programming & Experience Development, Tsivia Cohen is Associate Vice President of Guest Connections and Family Learning, and Kim Koin is Director of Art & Tinkering Lab Studios at Chicago Children’s Museum. Catherine Haden is Professor of Psychology at Loyola University Chicago. David Uttal is Professor of Psychology and Education at Northwestern University.