Conducting Research-to-Practice Work During a Pandemic: Utilizing Video and Zoom to Engage Families in Tinkering-At-Home

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by Natalie Bortoli, Tsivia Cohen, and Kim Koin, Chicago Children’s Museum; Catherine Haden, Loyola University Chicago; David Uttal, Northwestern University

When Chicago Children’s Museum (CCM) closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality of a prolonged closure soon hit home. Like all of our colleague museums, we needed to find a way to remain relevant to our community and carry out important aspects of our work.

One key initiative that needed to be sustained was our National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded research-to-practice project: TALES (Tinkering and Learning Engineering Stories)1. A partnership between CCM, Loyola University Chicago, and Northwestern University, this project studies how narrative and storytelling during tinkering explorations impact families’ engineering learning. The project will result in empirically-based practices and resources that can be used to promote children’s learning about engineering in informal settings.

Central to our project is the exploration of different programmatic, facilitative, and environmental approaches in the museum’s Tinkering Lab. The Tinkering Lab is an open-ended workshop space where families use tools—such as drills, hammers, and saws; and materials—like wood, paper, and recyclables—to build, construct, and solve physical problems. With mounted cameras in the exhibit and microphones clipped to visitors who agree to be recorded, the researchers capture families’ actions and conversations and provide data about engagement in tinkering and engineering learning. Additionally, researchers interview families after tinkering to gain further insight into children’s learning.

The temporary closure of the museum presented a challenge to this project. How were we to continue this multi-layered research-to-practice work that depended on: 1) offering live, facilitated tinkering-based challenges, 2) conducting the work in an exhibit equipped with a variety of hands-on tools and materials, 3) observing and recording families’ actions and dialogue, and 4) listening to families’ narratives?

As the museum began to shift its overall programmatic work to virtual content, the TALES team saw an opportunity to also utilize this format to engage families in our research-to-practice work. The team embarked on developing a set of video invitations for families to engage in Tinkering-at-Home.

The Tinkering-at-Home programs, which will continue to be developed for the duration of the museum’s closure to the public, are presented by CCM’s Director of Tinkering Lab and other team members via pre-recorded videos. They are shared through social media, the museum’s website, and its YouTube channel. The videos invite families to develop creative solutions to problems using materials they have at home.

To capture and study the families’ actions, researchers make appointments with families who express interest in participating in our work to meet over Zoom. CCM works with several community partner organizations to promote the opportunity for families to participate in the research and to ensure a diverse sample. Working with one family at the time, the researcher plays the Tinkering-at-Home videofor the family, and then invites them to engage in the activity in front of the camera. Meanwhile, the researcher records the session so it can be used in subsequent analyses of families’ actions and conversations. When the family is done with the activity, the researcher asks key questions to capture the families’ narratives and to gain understanding of their process and thinking.

This method allows us continue our important research-to-practice work, while also providing ongoing ways to engage families in meaningful STEM learning at home. At the same time, the virtual research has allowed us to continue to test various prompts, questions, and methods that will inform our practices back in the Tinkering Lab once the museum is re-opened, in keeping with the original goals of the project. This will also ultimately allow us to compare Tinkering-at-Home explorations to in-person versions of the same activities in the Tinkering Lab exhibit: an added opportunity that has been made possible by the unique conditions. 

A number of key findings have emerged from our transition to virtual practice, which may be useful for colleague organizations creating their own online programs or carrying out their own research projects using virtual platforms. Most significantly, we have found that transferring many of our existing best practices in facilitation and program design has been critical to our success. The following are some key tips and learnings other museums can use when creating virtual content:

  1. Create an invitation: It’s important to make sure families feel welcome to participate in your virtual programming. A dynamic facilitator who is energetic, welcoming, playful, and with sense of humor can help to make the activity engaging and re-create the inviting atmosphere of your museum. Consider prompts or challenges that are timely and relevant to inspire participation. For example, in these Covid times, one of our challenges explored how to deliver an object to someone 6-feet away. See “Here To There Ramps.”
  2. Communicate clearly, in multiple modes. Prioritize access and inclusion: Use written text or screen graphics to emphasize key words or concepts during your video presentation. Use captioning to make the video accessible and/or to translate the video content into other languages. For our Zoom sessions, bilingual researchers engage with families in the family’s preferred language. The TALES team has also created dual recordings of some activities, presenting an English version and a Spanish version. See “Make a Party Hat: En Español.”
  3. Help families source materials and tools: Actively show the types of physical materials and tools that can be used for the challenge, just as you might have done in your museum exhibits. Focus on showing common, everyday materials that can very likely be found and collected in families’ homes. Model how one might use particular tools and materials where applicable—especially if it involves using it in a new or surprising way. See “Cardboard 101.”
  4. Model a good workspace: As children’s museums, we are experts at creating environments for play and learning.Model this in your virtual space too.Present the activity from a space that is conducive to exploration. Feature a cleared tabletop or floor space with the needed tools and materials nearby. Show how existing furniture might be used to create different zones or levels, which is particularly helpful for some types of tinkering challenges. See “Domino Run.”
  5. Model dialogue and inquiry: Ask questions and provide commentary about the process as you present the activity. This may prompt families to also ask their own questions and share dialogue as they tinker. Key to the TALES project is recognition of the important roles played by storytelling and reflection in learning.
  6. Utilize best practices in video production: Although you don’t have to be a professional videographer to create successful virtual content, CCM’s team has documented several tips specific to the video production process that you may find helpful.

Because our research project tests the impact of different interventions and approaches, we have also tested variables in our virtual programs as follows.

  1. Consider the use of examples: We have tried variations of activities that 1) show multiple examples of solutions and 2) offer no examples of solutions. We will seek to measure the impact of these differing approaches through our research. An example of a challenge with multiple sample solutions can be viewed here: “Here To There Ramps.” An example with no sample solutions can be viewed here: “Make a Party Hat!”
  2. Experiment with the specificity of prompts. Different children and families may be more or less inspired by more or fewer parameters. We have tested a range of prompts. An example of a more open-ended story prompt with a more specific tinkering prompt can be viewed here: “Here To There Ramps.” An example of a more specific story prompt with an more open-ended tinkering prompt can be viewed here: “Teeny Tiny Playground Story.”

While the pandemic has placed new challenges before us and has required a different approach to engaging families in our research work, we have found that staying moored in our long-standing best practices for facilitation, program development, and research has enabled us to successfully transition our work. With this, we have been able to continue to both engage and learn from our participant families, and to collect data that will inform and strengthen our practices not only in the present, but in the post-COVID world as well.

1 This work is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. NSF #1906940 (LUC) 190196839 (CCM) 1906808 (NU).

Natalie Bortoli is Vice President of Programming & Experience Development, Tsivia Cohen is Associate Vice President of Guest Connections and Family Learning, and Kim Koin is Director of Art & Tinkering Lab Studios at Chicago Children’s Museum. Catherine Haden is Professor of Psychology at Loyola University Chicago. David Uttal is Professor of Psychology and Education at Northwestern University.