Little Engineers and Parents (LEAP) – pilot sessions

We had our first Little Engineers and Parents session and explored a variation of the Ramps and Pathways activity. Our goals were to help the parents learn and transfer some principles of good facilitation as well as observe how the children interacted with the materials.

Challenges: The biggest challenge was not very surprising – working with very young children. The youngest in the group was 1 year and the oldest was close to 3.  

Background: When Iridescent runs family science courses, we typically have very large groups of people (30-40 families corresponding to 100 or more participants). The session is for two hours and time flies. The engineering instructors present the content for 20 min, outline a challenge, introduce the materials and let the families build and test various solutions. The families build for roughly an hour, test for 20 min or so and finish up with dinner (another 20 min). If we are lucky, we get to bring everyone together to reflect on what everyone learned.

When we were planning the LEAP pilot, the biggest issue we ran into was that the little children are not familiar with materials and need much more time to get over their novelty and start to notice cause and effect. We also recognized the big role parents played as facilitators and wanted to have some parent education component to the session as well. So we kept it very open-ended and encouraged the parents to explore, observe and support their child.

Here is what I learned about myself as a participating parent (and student):

  • I was bored after the first two minutes! I could have benefited from a challenge! We didn’t want to provide too much structure and guidance for the families for multiple reasons. However, I see now that that was a mistake for a first session. Here is some supporting theory from the master psychologist – Albert Bandura. “One of the most effective ways of creating a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences. They provide the most authentic evidence of whether one can muster whatever it takes to succeed. Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy. Failures undermine it, especially if failures occur before a sense of efficacy is firmly established. Developing a sense of efficacy through mastery experiences is not a matter of adopting ready-made habits. Rather, it involves acquiring the cognitive, behavioral, and self-regulatory tools for creating and executing appropriate courses of action to manage ever-changing life circumstances. If people experience only easy successes they come to expect quick results and are easily discouraged by failure. A resilient sense of efficacy requires experience in overcoming obstacles through perseverant effort. Some difficulties and setbacks in human pursuits serve a useful purpose in teaching that success usually requires sustained effort. After people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed, they persevere in the face of adversity and quickly rebound from setbacks. By sticking it out through tough times, they emerge stronger from adversity.” So we should have provided some scaffolding – gone through a few experiments that worked before opening it up for exploration and discovery.
  • I was very influenced by the presence of the other parents. It helped to see them use different methods, to see what was working and what was not.
  • The children didn’t get bored. The parents did. This discrepancy is really fascinating! Young children can repeatedly practice the same thing way past their parents’ patience/persistence levels. But we do have an issue in grade school when teachers start to complain about the lack of focus. I suspect that parents are instrumental in this loss of persistence. How many times have you seen other parents at a science center telling a child, “Lets go! We have to see that exhibit and that one and that one”? Maybe there is some advantage to having a shorter attention span and our brains develop towards that. But I am skeptical!
  • The instructor started with a simple ice-breaker for the children, and I think the parents could have benefited from one as well (although we already knew each other). More relevant theory from Bandura – “Another powerful way of creating and strengthening efficacy beliefs is through the vicarious experiences provided by social models. Seeing people similar to themselves succeed by perseverant effort raises observers’ beliefs that they, too, possess the capabilities to master comparable activities. By the same token, observing others fail despite high effort lowers observers’ judgements of their own efficacy and undermines their level of motivation. The impact of modeling on beliefs of personal efficacy is strongly influenced by perceived similarity to the models. The greater the assumed similarity the more persuasive are the models’ successes and failures. If people see the models as very different from themselves their beliefs of personal efficacy are not much influenced by the model’s behavior and the results it produces.”
  • Learning and doing and being an active contributor is hard! It is so much easier to watch and be a passive student listening to a teacher do exciting show and tell demos. Transferring and applying knowledge takes a lot of energy. It maybe wise to load up on calories before a class like this!
  • Having an instructor for a very small group meant that we didn’t take complete ownership of the experience. In our family science sessions, each family is its own independent learning unit as the larger group is so big and the instructors are very far away and almost inaccessible. But in a small group, we looked to the instructor and not to ourselves to be creative and focused.
  • The instructor provided some guidelines for the parents (also below), but we didn’t practice each point. Maybe going through them as a group before would have been useful, followed by practice and group reflection.


OBSERVATION: Observe your child in order to understand and assess their understanding and their reasoning. There are five primary reasons to observe your child:

  • You will learn about your child’s interests and preferences (“She loves to play with trucks”).
  • You will gain knowledge about child’s level of cognitive and social development (“She always throws a ball really hard or not at all, but she doesn’t throw hard or soft along a continuum”).
  • Learn about your child’s strategies for creating desired effects (“He likes to control all of the crayons when he is with other children”).
  • Look to see what skills and accomplishments your child demonstrates (“He has a hard time stringing beads onto a knotted string”).
  • Gain insights into your child’s temperament and personality (“My child is not a risk taker”).

INTERVENTIONS AND QUESTIONS: Intervene with questions and comments to encourage children’s thinking and to construct mental relationships.

  • Use language to encourage cooperation and mutual respect (minimize external control and help your child to help him or herself).
  • Use questions or comments that do not require a verbal response from the child. Choose a question that can be answered with actions (“What else can you try?” or “Have you tried …..?)
  • Ask for predictions (“What do you think will happen if you…….?)
  • Suggest new possibilities for experimentation, but allow the child the freedom to ignore the suggestion (“Do you think you can make the marble roll all the way to the wall?” or “What can you do to make the boat travel farther?”)
  • Use guiding language and questions to help the child become more conscious of what he / she is doing (“I didn’t see where the marble fell off. Could you try it again so I can watch it more carefully?” or “How do you suppose this could happen?” or “Does it work the same way if you start in the middle of the ramp?”)
  • Encourage the child to wonder about physical causes. It is often valuable to comment versus asking a direct question of the child (“I wonder why this boat traveled faster thaN the other boat?” or “I wonder why the marble on this ramp rolled farther than the marble on that ramp?”
  • Instead of questions, it can be effective to narrate your own thoughts, ideas or strategies (“ I think I’ll try to make my boat with this material now.” or “I think I’ll place my ramp against this really tall chair to see what happens.”)
3 replies
  1. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Fascinating lesson. I do agree that more emphasis should have been placed on questioning, but overall, I like the application of engineering thought to a lesson for young children. This, not filling in bubbles, is what makes our nation the flagship it once was.

  2. Allan M Lees
    Allan M Lees says:

    I wonder if Piaget’s work on the various stages a child’s brain goes through has any relevance to what you’re doing? In other words (if Piaget’s ideas are valid) the type of learning and the method of learning needs to be age-appropriate, otherwise the kid is being set a task they’re unable to do at their particular age.

  3. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    I love reading these type reports. The problem is that one doesn’t learn much of anything from them. I can’t imagine that one needs a master psychologist to shed light on the situation, nor that the list of pertinent points is very useful. They don’t tell anybody anything new. It’s nothing more than common social practices in an environment filled with manipulatable, interesting objects coupled with behaviorial activities, and the observations and conclusions never get past that.


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