Informal Learning

The Tinkering Lab At The Chicago Children’s Museum

In Collaboration with Loyola University Chicago










  • We are currently working with Loyola University Chicago and the Chicago Children’s Museum in their Tinkering Lab Exhibit. Visitors are presented with tools and supplies and invited to participate in challenges such as Make it Roll, Make it Fly, and more! We are interested in how parents and children interact and collaborate on engineering design tasks presented to them in the exhibit.


STEM Learning and Transfer in a Children’s Museum and Beyond –full paper
Maria Marcus, Catherine A. Haden, David H. Uttal

This study addressed whether providing mothers and children with engineering information would promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talk during interactions in a building-construction exhibit and later when remembering the experience at home. A total of 40 mothers and their 5- to 6-year-old children (M = 5.87) were randomly assigned to one of two groups that either did or did not receive specific information about a simple engineering principle prior to building at the museum. A subset of the dyads (N = 21) also recorded memory conversations at home at two delay intervals. The engineering information supported transfer of learning from the demonstration to building in the exhibit, as well as to memory reports at least 2 weeks afterwards. Implications for museum-based research and practice are discussed.

Building learning: Narrating experiences in a children’s museum – full paper
Catherine A. Haden, Tsivia Cohen, David H. Uttal, Maria Marcus

The poem provides a nice epigraph for this chapter in which we describe some of the fruits of our collaborative partnership that began about 10 years ago. It started when Tsivia Cohen (the author of the poem) and Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM) were moving forward with several research initiatives in CCM’s National Science Foundation (NSF) supported project, Partnership for Playful Learners (NSF grant #0452550). One important goal was to forge new connections between CCM and university researchers. Dr. Suzanne Gaskins of Northeastern Illinois University-already a CCM research partner-and Cohen reached out to a number of Chicago-area researchers, including Dr. Catherine Haden. Haden’s research on parent-child conversations and memory development linked nicely with Cohen’s focus on enhancing collaborative learning through narrative reflection (and Gaskin’s research on individual and cultural variations in learning). We sowed the seeds of our partnership from these common interests. Over the years the partnership has grown to include Dr. David Uttal, and has gained additional NSF funding (NSF collaborative grant #1123411/1122712, Engineering Learning) to study how parent-child conversations during hands-on activities help children remember what they have learned and apply their learning to new situations. A number of Haden’s and Uttal’s graduate and undergraduate students and research assistants have been involved in the work over the years, including doctoral student, Maria Marcus.

Objects, Conversations, and Young Children’s Learning about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)

David H. Uttal, Catherine A. Haden, Maria Marcus, Erin A. Jant

Humans are flexible learners, capable of using and integrating many sources of information . One important information source is direct experience in the world, including navigation, observation, and physical interaction with objects. However, human learning is not limited to the bounds of our own direct experience. Much of what we know comes fr om others, represented in language or symbolic artifacts, such as texts, mathematical symbols, maps, and written music . Our ability to learn through our social-linguistic interactions with others and through symbolic representations is a hallmark of our species.

Skyline Exhibit at Chicago Children’s Museum

Collaborate with Loyola University Chicago

  • In the past, we have also worked with Loyola University Chicago at the Chicago Children’s Museum in their Skyline Exhibit. We looked at how parents and their children collaboratively learn about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Specifically, our study investigated parent-child interactions in an informal learning environment, focusing on how parents and their children cooperatively learn about building ideas. We handled concepts such as in parent-child conversations, scientific reasoning, knowledge transfer, STEM learning, and informal learning as part of our study.


Spatial Development: in Oxford Handbook of Developmental Psychology, P. Zelazo (Ed.) — download the Chapter here

This chapter is a selective review of spatial development, stressing several points. First, we suggest that spatial development can be usefully considered to have two strands: (a) the development of intra-object (or intrinsic) representations along with the ability to transform them (e.g., in mental rotation), and (b) the development of inter-object (or extrinsic) representations and the ability to use them to navigate. Second, we argue that both lines of development begin from strong starting points, but also undergo considerable development. They are far from innately specified, nor do they have a modular architecture. Third, we discuss the amplification of spatial skills by human symbolic capabilities, including language, use of maps and models, and gesture. Fourth, we identify areas where research is lacking, most notably the formal description of intra-object skills and the charting of their normative development, the exploration of the sources of individual differences in navigation-relevant skills, and the applications of research to education.

        The Malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies

David H. UttalNathaniel G. MeadowLinda L. HandAlison AldenChristopher Warren, and Nora Newcombe

Having good spatial skills strongly predicts achievement and attainment in STEM fields (e.g., Shea, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2001; Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009). Improving spatial skills is therefore of both theoretical and practical importance. To determine whether and to what extent training can improve these skills, we meta-analyzed 217 research studies, investigating the magnitude, moderators, durability and generalizability of training on spatial skills. After eliminating outliers, the average effect size (Hedges’ g) for training relative to control was .47 (SE = .04). Effect sizes were affected substantially by the presence and type of control groups. When treatment and control group improvements were considered separately, the mean effect size for trained groups was.62 (SE = .04), significantly larger than the effect size for control groups, .45 (SE = .04). Training effects were stable and were not affected by delays between training and post-testing. Training also led to both near and moderately far transfer. Considered together, the results suggest that spatially enriched education could pay substantial dividends in increasing participation in mathematics, science, and engineering.

       One Hidden Object, Two Spatial Codes: Young Children’s use of relational and vector coding  — full paper

David H. UttalLisa B. SandstromNora S. Newcombe

An important characteristic of mature spatial cognition is the ability to encode spatial locations in terms of relations among landmarks as well as in terms of vectors that include distance and direction. In this study, we examined children’s use of the relation middle to code the location of a hidden toy, using a procedure adapted from prior work on spatial cognition in gerbils (Collett, Cartwright,&Smith, 1986). Children of 4 and 5 years searched for a hidden toy in a large-scale environment. They were trained to find the toy with either 2 or 1 landmark present. On subsequent trials we altered the number and locations of the landmarks to determine how children represented the location of the toy. With 2 landmarks present during the initial training trial, the children coded both the middle location and the distance and direction from the toy to the landmarks. With 1 landmark present during the training trial, the children coded the location in terms of distance and direction to the single landmark. Our results shed light on seemingly inconsistent prior findings in both human and nonhuman species and indicate that both relational and vector coding are present in young children.

       Mental models of virology in experts and novices

Ben D. JeeDavid H. Uttal, Caroline CrouchAmy Spiegeland Judy Diamond

Viruses are invisible and their effects, though often experienced, arise through mechanisms that may be poorly understood by many people. The present work examined what people with different levels of virology expertise think and believe about viruses. We conducted detailed, semi‐structured interviews about virus infection, replication, transmission, and other topics with a group of middle school students, science teachers, and expert virologists. Participants’ responses were coded for content and used to establish their mental models for several key topics (cf. Hmelo‐Silver & Pfeffer, 2004). Analyses revealed that the experts’ mental models were greatest in depth and coherence. Many of the students—and several teachers—possessed scientific inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their mental models. By capitalizing on experts’ knowledge organizations and by targeting common misconceptions about viruses found in students and teachers, it will be possible to develop materials and tools for increasing people’s understanding of viruses and the microbiological world.  —

       Understanding the microbiological world: People’s beliefs about reasoning about viruses

Ben D. JeeDavid H. UttalAmy Spiegeland Judy Diamond

Viruses have a substantial impact on our health. The present study examined the structure and coherence of people’s intuitive knowledge about viruses through in depth clinical interviews. Analyses revealed topics that were well understood, as well as inconsistencies and gaps in people’s knowledge. Findings will contribute to the design of health related instruction. —

       Research on Family Learning in the Crown Family PlayLab

Erin WilkersonCatherine A. HadenDavid H. UttalNathaniel G. Meadow and Elizabeth Babcock

The purpose of the current work addressed how to encourage elaborative talk and joint interactions regarding objects in a museum setting, so as to foster children’s learning and remembering. How do parent-child conversations that occur in a museum exhibit impact children’s memory for the experience? Results suggest that the pre-exhibit experiences of the “Objects and Cards” group lead families to engage with objects more frequently in a functional manner and to ask more open-ended questions in the exhibit relative to the others. Additionally the results suggest that with regard to exhibit interactions, the presentation of objects prior to exhibit entry increased manipulation of objects, and that the presentation of cards with questions increased parents’ asking of questions and children’s responding to questions.

Scale Errors Offer Evidence for a Perception-Action Dissociation Early in Life — full paper

Judy S. Deloache, David H. UttalKarl S. Rosengren

We report a perception-action dissociation in the behavior of normally developing young children. In adults and older children, the perception of an object and the organization of actions on it are seamlessly integrated. However, as documented here, 18- to 30-month-old children sometimes fail to use information about object size and make serious attempts to perform impossible actions on miniature objects. They try, for example, to sit in a dollhouse chair or to get into a small toy car. We interpret scale errors as reflecting problems with inhibitory control and with the integration of visual information for perception and action.

Manipulatives as Symbols: A new perspective on the use of conrete objects to teach mathematics  full paper

David H. UttalKathyrn V. Scudder and Judy S. DeLoache

This article offers a new perspective on the use of concrete objects to teach mathematics. It is commonly assumed that concrete manipulatives are effective because they allow children to perform mathematics without understanding arbitrary, written mathematical symbols. We argue that the sharp distinction between concrete and abstract forms of mathematical expression may not be justified. We believe instead that manipulatives are also symbols; teachers intend for them to stand for or represent a concept or written symbol. Consequently, research on how young children comprehend symbolic relations is relevant to studying their comprehension of manipulatives. We review evidence that many of the problems that children encounter when using manipulatives are very similar to problems that they have using other symbol systems such as scale models. Successful use of manipulatives depends on treating them as symbols rather than as substitutes for symbols.