Put science tools on Santa’s list

When children have greater access to science tools at home – equipment like rulers, measuring cups and kitchen scales – and time to tinker with them, it can strengthen their interest and confidence in science.

That’s according to a new study published in Research in Science Education, led by Megan Ennes and co-investigator Gail Jones, together with the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Researchers surveyed 45 children from low-income families and their parents about children’s access to a list of 20 common science tools at home.

The list of tools included everything from building toys (like Lego and blocks), to maps and compasses, telescopes and microscopes, rulers and measuring cups, magnifying glasses and science kits.

The results show a significant correlation between a child’s perceived access to science tools and Science Achievement Value scores (a measure of science interest and confidence).

“Out-of-school tinkering with materials plays an important role in developing the self-confidence to learn science and construct a science identity,” says study co-author Gail Jones, a professor of science education at North Carolina State University.

Children aged 8–11 (and their parents) were recruited to the study by three US museums through partnerships with community organisations and schools. There was roughly equal representation of girls and boys.

All participants were surveyed on children’s access to tools at home, the time spent engaging with tool-based activities like reading a map or using a ruler, as well as children’s level of interest and confidence in science.

The results revealed a wide gap between the tools parents knew they had lying around the house and those their children had encountered.

Parents reported children had greater access to tools (13 from the list of 20 tools, on average), than the children themselves perceived (11 of 20 tools, on average).

Most children said they had access to a camera (95%), measuring cup (89%), calculator (87%), timer (84%), ruler (84%) or GPS (84%) at home.

Whereas, more than half lacked access to a map, compass, metre stick, kitchen scale, science kit, health monitor, Lincoln Logs (a type of building toy), telescope, or microscope.

There was no significant gender difference in the level of access to tools.

Read more: Where do the children play? Starting early key in addressing the STEM gender gap

The paper encourages parents to make science tools at home readily available for children to explore and experiment with.

Tools are considered foundational for learning science – in making observations, analysing data, sharing results – and their use is a key element in many countries’ science curriculums, including in Australia.

For instance, the Australian Curriculum science standards for years 1 – 2 states students should be able to “use informal measurements to collect and record observations… using units that are familiar to students from home and school, such as cups (cooking)”.

The study notes that early experiences using tools at home can help children feel capable and better prepared for learning science in school settings.

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