Design Challenges at a Science Center: Are Children Engineering?

Jennifer Wang
AERA (2014)


Engineering design challenges and tinkering activities are increasingly popular in informal learning settings. Thus, these environments can benefit from foundational research on learners’ engineering processes as they engage in these settings. This paper conducts an exploitive analysis of an existing design challenges program at a science center through the investigation of the design processes of 22 visitor groups across five challenges. The design processes are compared across the challenges to identify characteristics of these settings that engage learners in engineering. The premise, example designs, and materials played key roles in visitors’ design processes. Findings show that (1) each challenge provided unique contexts in which to engage in iterative engineering design, (2) visitors utilized existing designs and designs in progress from other visitors for inspiration, and (3) visitors were particularly influenced by the materials and used them as a means to gather information, explore possibilities, and identify goals. Many visitors also exhibited design process progressions similar to expert engineers, suggesting that the context and materials provide opportunities for early engineering experiences.