According to a new study, children think they have less access to common measurement tools and toys around the house than their parents do. This was the unexpected result Megan Ennes and co-investigator Gail Jones discovered just before launching a year-long program to boost science engagement among minority and low-income families in the southeastern U.S.

“We wanted to support families because parents and caregivers are the first people who help children understand how the world works,” said Ennes, assistant curator of museum education at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “If parents never talk about science, then it can be harder for kids to envision themselves as scientists, and it can hinder them from pursuing science degrees and careers.”

The same idea goes for science-related tools, says Ennes. Education researchers have known for decades that a child’s exposure to scientific tools and activities is directly correlated with their interest and success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as adults. Children who regularly interact with measurement tools such as thermometers, maps and rulers are more likely to feel proficient at using them when the same tools are introduced at school. This allows them to build expertise in a subject more quickly than their peers.

Children with more access to these tools also tend to use them more creatively, tinkering with them in new and inventive ways. A ruler might be used for its intended purpose to measure the length of an object, or it might be converted into a springboard in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine. This familiarity creates raw generative power that can sustain their initial interest in science and the natural world far beyond adolescence.

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

So when Ennes and Jones partnered with three museums in North Carolina to host a science engagement program, they made sure to ask families which common tools they owned. They also asked them to indicate how often they participated in a number of activities to gauge the extent to which they engaged with STEM-related content and ideas.

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