Making "Herstory" with Innovative Research

May 31, 2019

Amazeum joins New York Hall of Science and San Jose Tech Museum in Research Project to Engage and Retain Girls in STEAM


May 11, 2020 Update: 

After nearly a year, the research findings show a clear relationship between empathy and engineering. Girls respond positively and engage at a deeper level when an engineering activity includes a narrative element that creates empathy. 

"We discovered that you don't have to do grand, sweeping changes to design of an activity to see result," Mindy Porter, Amazeum Director of Education says.

The research showed small design changes result in empathy and sustained engagement in the the process of learning engineering.
Original blog post from May 31, 2019

One of the greatest challenges in engineering has less to do with technology, physics, or design and more to do with psychology. Educators, researchers, and businesses are all working to increase the number of girls and young women studying engineering. The desire to, in effect, rebrand engineering to appeal to female students led to a collaboration between the New York Hall of Science (NYSci), The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California (Tech), and the Scott Family Amazeum to research innovative methods to engage girls seven to 14 in engineering. Increasing the number of girls in science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) is a relevant topic as the need for a diverse, highly skilled labor force continues to grow.

NYSci and Tech lean heavily into engineering and were looking for a partner museum that would challenge them to think about engineering differently. NYSci was writing a National Science Foundation grant to research how to engage girls in engineering and in 2017, approached the Amazeum based largely on the museum’s growing national reputation for innovative and engaging experiences for children. “We wanted to work with people who were doing very good work in other places,” NYSci Director of Creative Pedagogy Dorothy Bennett says.

“They wanted a museum that was different,” Amazeum Director of Education Mindy Porter says. “We have an interest in engineering but with a different viewpoint.” The audience at the Amazeum is slightly younger than at the other two museums, and the approach to engineering is less structured and more open-ended. At the Amazeum, an understanding of engineering begins in the 3M Tinkering Hub where children of all ages learn about behaviors of materials, tools, structures, and engineers through playful exploration driven by curiosity and creativity.

“Working with the Amazeum helps us think about engineering in a much more active and creative kind of way rather than giving kids a closed-ended engineering challenge to solve,” NYSci Research Associate Suzy Letourneau says. The collaboration with the Amazeum changed the impetus for engaging young girls in engineering from starting with a defined problem to solve to encouraging them to discover a problem they personally want to pursue.

Along with infusing open-ended exploration and discovery into the process of engineering, the research study centers on why girls tend to lose interest in science and engineering.

“Girls need an entry point. They need a ‘why’,” Mindy says.

“The question we’re trying to answer through this research project is: ‘Does wrapping an engineering activity in a narrative engage girls early and sustain interest?’” Mindy continues.

Including a narrative is more than just adding a compelling story to an engineering problem.

“The narrative provides a level of engagement that helps kids find their passion for a project,” Amazeum Making and Tinkering Manager Joel Gordon says.

The narrative gives a reason to go beyond the pure engineering involved in solving a problem. “There’s an emotional impact to finding a solution that not only solves the problem but does so in a way that accounts for the end users’ experience,” Joel continues. Empathy is traditionally a minor consideration in engineering education programs. The research looks to investigate how the inclusion of a narrative places engineering in context and evokes an empathetic response that increases engagement.

The Amazeum will begin testing out activities aligned with the research criteria in the coming months to collect data. “The narrative evoking empathy is our whole purpose of the study,” Dorothy says. “Evoking empathy is designing for someone. You have to take human constraints into account. So often, we have engineering students so focused on the physics that they completely forget who the end user is. At the end of the day, that’s when the designs fail,” Dorothy concludes.

While the research is focused on girls, there are implications for engineering education regardless of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. “Students are coming out of engineering programs who possess knowledge but they’re not passionate,” Joel says. “This is how you create passion and engender those ‘a-ha’ moments.” “Engineering is so decontextualized and abstract, separated from problems people really care about,” Dorothy adds. “We’re trying to address that by surrounding experiences with characters and settings and real-world situations that people can relate to with the hope that it will impact not only girls, but also everyone.”