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Research to Practice, Practice to Research

Using Apps to Engage All Families in Science Exploration

Exploring science from an early age can improve school readiness and provide children with a strong foundation for future scientific understanding. Many young children, however, lack opportunities to engage in meaningful science exploration. Moreover, significant disparities in science achievement exist between children from low-income families and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. These achievement gaps are present at the beginning of school and widen as children progress through middle and high school (Morgan et al. 2016). Prior to formal schooling, parents play an important role in their children’s learning. Although parents reported in a recent study that they feel equipped to support their child’s development of math, literacy, and social-emotional skills, they reported lower levels of confidence in science. This was especially true for parents with lower levels of education (Silander et al. 2018). When it comes to engaging children in science learning at home, additional barriers exist for Spanish-speaking families, who often lack access to culturally responsive science materials in their primary language. Research suggests, however, that the right supports and resources can boost parent engagement with their children in science activities (Benjamin, Haden, and Wilkerson 2010).

How media can help

Media and technology resources hold potential for helping parents do more science with their young children. Once developed, media, particularly public media, are easily and cheaply scaled to reach large audiences. Children, including young children, spend a substantial amount of time using digital media every week (Rideout 2017), and certain kinds of media experiences can increase young children’s science learning (Grindal et al. 2019). In light of recent research on the ability of media to engage parents with math anxiety in family-based math activities (Berkowitz et al. 2015), media might be a particularly important avenue for supporting parents who lack confidence in their ability to engage in science with their children. For example, media, such as videos and digital games, can initially engage families in science content and model science exploration. That engagement can then be extended through the recurrence of characters who are now familiar to children and storylines that extend across episodes or games (Richert, Robb, and Smith 2011). Media can also scaffold children’s learning by modeling academic language, discourse, and other practices. Similarly, there is potential for media to scaffold parents’ interactions with their children around science.

To engage parents and young children in exploring science together, media producers from WGBH (Boston’s public media station) and researchers from Education Development Center (EDC) collaborated with two home-visiting organizations—Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY USA) and AVANCE—to design and test PEEP Family Science, an app-based intervention with science-focused digital media resources and associated supports for diverse, low-income families. Home-visiting programs are ones in which educators go into families’ homes to give parents the skills and tools they need to foster children’s healthy development and school readiness. HIPPY USA is an evidence-based, structured home-visiting program that includes a 30-week school-readiness curriculum. AVANCE is a culturally sensitive home-visiting program that brings child development services to Hispanic families in at-risk communities. With both organizations, home educators provide parents with support and materials to foster their children’s development and school readiness. Both organizations target low-income families whose children do not attend preschool. In this regard, these home visiting organizations play a unique role in promoting school readiness by bridging formal and informal education contexts. PEEP Family Science was iteratively developed in collaboration with HIPPY USA and AVANCE.

This article describes that development process and offers recommendations for educators and program coordinators about how to engage families in science using media-based apps, based on findings from our research.

PEEP Family Science intervention

PEEP Family Science uses the animated public television series PEEP and the Big Wide World to involve families with preschool-age children in science exploration through joint media engagement and hands-on investigation. A series of free apps with science units dedicated to the topics of soundsramps and movementcolors, and shadows constitute the core of the intervention. Unique in the world of apps for preschoolers, the PEEP Family Science apps target parents as the primary user, rather than children, and are designed to encourage joint engagement with media. Available in both English and Spanish, PEEP Family Science apps use animated and live-action videos to introduce families to science concepts, suggest questions related to the concepts for parents to discuss with their children, and give parents step-by-step guidance for conducting hands-on science activities with their children to bring the concepts to life. Aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework, PEEP Family Science focuses on preschool science concepts related to physical science, such as the nature and behavior of sound energy, light energy, and matter; properties of matter and motion of objects; and practices, such as making observations and comparisons, testing and problem-solving, and communicating and sharing ideas.

The activities are framed around three specific parent pedagogical strategies: play and explore together, ask questions and talk about ideas, and explore more. (See Figure 1 to learn more.)

Figure 1
Parent Pedagogical Strategies

Each app offers activities on one science topic to be done over four weeks. The activities combine a PEEP animated video with a related hands-on activity. Between 20 and 30 minutes long, the activities encourage families to explore together, talk, and share their ideas. For example, in the Ramps Unit, a parent and child watch a PEEP video in which the characters have fun going down a slide. After discussing the video, parent and child then make their own miniature slide out of cardboard and experiment with sliding things down it (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
App interface for the PEEP Family Science Ramps Unit

The apps include short parent videos that feature a parent and child modeling the activities and illustrating the pedagogical strategies. PEEP Family Science also incorporates resources to help home educators support parents effectively, including an educator overview video that outlines the educator’s role and educator guides (PDFs) for each of the units. The guides are designed to walk educators through the apps step by step and provide written guidance on how to model child-directed science explorations for parents.

PEEP Family Science design

The design of PEEP Family Science builds on prior research with family childcare educators in home-based settings. To ensure that PEEP Family Science met the needs of participating families, the project used a design-based implementation research approach (Penuel et al. 2011), in which WBGH media producers and EDC researchers, HIPPY and AVANCE stakeholders, and project advisors worked in collaboration to develop a set of design principles to guide the development of PEEP Family Science’s media experiences, hands-on activities, and supports for parents and educators. The intervention was then developed and pilot tested over three iterative phases.

To illustrate how families might use the resources, the following vignette features a family that EDC researchers observed using the PEEP Family Science Colors Unit.

Video: Hide and Go Peep

A parent and child sat together watching an animated video wherein Peep, Chirp, and Quack explore the concept of camouflage while inventing a game about color. When the video ended, the parent and child had the following discussion using prompts from the app:

Parent: You remember when Peep hid in the flowers? Why do you think it was hard for Quack to find him?

Child: Because he was yellow and the flowers were yellow.

Parent: Really? So they were the …

Child: Same color.

Parent: Same color. Good job. But why was it easy for him to find Chirp?

Child: Because Chirp is red and flowers are yellow.

Parent: Yeah, so he’s …

Child: Different color.

Activity: Bug Hide-and-Go-Seek

After discussing the video, the parent and child moved to the hands-on activity, making different colored bugs out of paper and hiding them around the house for each other to find. During the first round, the mother was careful to hide the bugs on top of colors that were different, and in the second round, she hid the bugs on colors that were similar. After they finished playing, the mother asked the child to reflect on the activity using prompts from the app:

 

Parent: When we were hiding our colors, why do you think it was so hard to find the blue? And the purple?

Child: Because the purple was underneath my daddy’s machine and it was dark and purple is dark.

Parent: Mmm-hmm. Good job.

Child: And the blue one was so light and grandma’s bedroom was light.

Parent: Okay. Good job.

 

Implementation study

To examine the promise of PEEP Family Science for promoting science engagement and supporting parent capacity to do so, in the final year of the project, researchers conducted an implementation study (Silander et al. 2019) with families and home educators in rural and urban settings in Arkansas and Texas. The implementation study used a pre-/post- design with a comparison group to examine how home educators and families used PEEP Family Science, and whether caregiver attitudes about and knowledge of strategies designed to support children’s science learning changed after using the intervention. A total of 20 educators and 217 families participated in the study, 200 of who completed both pre- and postsurveys. Most caregivers were mothers, but a few grandmothers and fathers also participated. See Table 1 to learn more about participating families.

Table 1
Participant characteristics

The study took place over 12 weeks, between February and May 2018, during which researchers asked educators to have intervention families use three four-week units (ramps and movement, colors, and sounds). Researchers collected surveys from all parents, interviewed all educators, observed a subset of educators and parents using the resources, and interviewed a subset of parents. Below we describe the results of the study.

Study findings

Findings from the implementation study indicate that with its combined emphasis on media, hands-on exploration, and parent engagement, PEEP Family Science offered families opportunities to explore important science content and practices. Researchers observed parents and children exploring core disciplinary ideas in physical science, such as testing and experimenting with how objects move on inclines; describing, identifying, and comparing colors; and exploring differences in the pitch and volume of sounds. Researchers also saw families using several science practices, including asking questions; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.

The following vignette features a family that EDC researchers observed using the PEEP Family Science Ramps Unit. The scientific understanding gained through an exploration such as this helps children build foundational knowledge for later science learning, both in school and out of school.

During one observation, a parent and child experimented with rolling and sliding different materials and objects—stuffed animals, balls, dominoes, a scarf, and an apple—down a ramp at different inclines. To illustrate the effect of a ramp’s incline on speed, the parent first laid the ramp flat and then made the incline steeper. After the child selected an item, the parent and child made predictions about what would happen when they rolled objects down the ramp and discussed factors that would affect the speed:

Activity: Toy Sleds

Parent: If we put them higher, they will go more quickly. Why do you think that they will go more quickly? Look. It’s higher. Slide it.

Child: Yes.

Parent: Is it going to go fast or slow? Slow or fast?

Child: Fast.

Parent: Fast? Let’s see.

Child: Fast!

Parent: Yes! It goes very fast. Do you want to try it? … If we make it flat, will it slide? Will it slide or won’t it slide?

Child: It won’t slide.

Parent: It won’t slide. So, the surface needs to be a little bit elevated. If we put this here, try it. It slides, but it goes very slow.

 

Virtually all parents surveyed agreed that PEEP Family Science media and hands-on activities helped their child learn important science topics, and that the PEEP Family Science intervention gave them ideas about strategies to use with their children to help them learn about science. For example, most parents who were interviewed explored more with their child by going outside to find ramps, colors, or sounds in their yard or at the park; some parents added new materials to the activities. During interviews, most parents indicated that they appreciated having access to vetted resources that support science exploration, with multiple parents agreeing that their child learned science by using PEEP Family Science. Our findings were consistent across families using the apps in Spanish and English, indicating that PEEP Family Science was successful in engaging Spanish- and English-speaking families. Findings also identified a few challenges related to using the apps to support children’s science learning. A few parents and educators in our study expressed uneasiness about the educational value of using media with young children, and a few parents had trouble moving their children from the videos to the hands-on activities.

Surveys, interviews, and observations suggest that most parents enjoyed using PEEP Family Science and found it easy to access and implement. Most parents accessed the apps on their smartphones. Some challenges they encountered included compatibility problems between the app and their smartphones, lack of adequate storage space on their phones, and lack of reliable Wi-Fi access to download the app. A few parents who were unable to download the apps on their phones borrowed a tablet from the home-visiting organization. Families who did not have Wi-Fi access at home, or were unable to access public networks, used Wi-Fi hot spots provided by the research team. Although some parents were initially apprehensive about using technology, most were easily able to download and access the app, either independently or with help from the home educator. A few parents we observed struggled with navigating the app and following the progression of the activities. In these cases, the home educator was able to assist them; one parent said her child helped her navigate the app. (Learn more about these challenges in the “Recommendations for Educators and Program Coordinators” section below.)

To further examine the potential impacts of PEEP Family Science, researchers explored how parents’ attitudes and reported behaviors changed between the start and the end of the study. Parents who used PEEP Family Science reported doing substantially more science activities with their child and having an improved ability to support their child’s learning through joint media engagement, versus the comparison parent group. Additionally, parents who initially reported low use of pedagogical strategies for supporting their children’s science interest and learning increased their use of strategies such as talking about science ideas with their children, asking their children questions about science, or exploring the same science topic more than once with different materials or in a different place. Importantly, parents who were initially less confident in helping their children learn science were more confident about helping their children learn science. And, parents who were less likely to feel that science was an important subject for their child were more likely to value the subject after they used PEEP Family Science, compared to families who did not use the apps.

It is important to note that there are a few limitations to the study findings. Specifically, because educators selected families to participate, we cannot generalize these findings to the full population of families who are enrolled in home-visiting programs. It is possible that parents who participated in the study are more motivated and interested in science compared to parents who elected not to participate. Second, the study design is not experimental and does not allow for causal conclusions about whether using PEEP Family Science had an impact on parent learning and attitudes. For example, it is possible that differences in the survey outcomes between parents in the treatment and comparison groups were due to differences between the groups and not the intervention, such as more motivated or more experienced home educators. Despite these limitations, the findings from this study related to parent reports about the ease of use, positive differences on all five postsurvey outcomes compared to the comparison group, and the low cost to scale the intervention suggest that PEEP Family Science holds promise for supporting a more general parent population to engage in science with their young children.

Recommendations for educators and program coordinators

To contextualize the broader implications of our findings, below we discuss strategies for using app-based media that worked for the PEEP Family Science intervention, as well as challenges we encountered and lessons learned. We offer recommendations for educators and program coordinators about things to consider before adopting similar strategies and resources to engage families in science.

Use media apps that model science exploration

Media can help give families the support they need to engage in science exploration, and it is possible to reach and engage low-income and diverse parents through carefully designed media-based interventions. In our study, most parents observed by the researchers reported that they found the parent videos embedded in the apps valuable in modeling science engagement and joint-media engagement. One parent said the videos “were helpful in preparing for what we were going to do. It showed me what we needed to have on hand … And then it helps to give ideas on what questions to ask … to help transition into the activity. I think that helped a lot.” Parents and home educators alike valued the videos because they engaged families in a subject that many perceive as difficult. Home educators reported that the parent videos were particularly valuable for parents who lacked strong literacy skills or did not feel confident doing science. The home educators also valued the parent videos for their step-by-step guidance and concrete examples of how to use the media and conduct the hands-on activities. The educator video was similarly useful: Home educators appreciated that it modeled how to support parents in using PEEP Family Science. Home educators used different resources as guidance, depending on their preferences and needs. For example, home educators who felt the written guide was too text-heavy instead relied on the parent videos—an interesting finding, because educators were not the target audience for these videos.

When selecting apps with science media for families, it is important to ensure that the videos and activities are developmentally appropriate for preschoolers and feature children of the target age. PEEP Family Science was designed for four- and five-year-olds, but our study included three-year olds because they are a large part of the population that AVANCE and HIPPY serve. Reports from educators and parents indicated a need for additional supports for families with three-year-olds to help them understand how to adapt activities for younger children and what engagement in science should look like for this age group.

Make science part of a family’s everyday experience

The challenges that families face in doing science are related to their perceptions, namely, that they lack the knowledge and special materials to do science. Using apps that provide families with easy entry points, such as science investigations that connect to families’ lives, fit into their daily schedules, and use everyday materials can lead to successful experiences with science. According to parent surveys, about half of parents spent between 30 minutes and one hour per week using PEEP Family Science; about one-quarter spent less time and another one-quarter spent more time. Almost all parents surveyed found it easy to fit PEEP Family Science into their daily lives. Virtually all parents indicated they were still using the apps by the end of the three-month intervention, suggesting attrition was not a significant problem—although the lack of attrition may have been due to the support from the educators to encourage parents to continue using the program.

Science investigations should incorporate materials that are readily available in most homes and provide recommendations for alternate materials. Parents and educators appreciated that PEEP Family Science activities did not require special materials (with the exception of one activity that required paints). Even when families did not have all of the recommended materials, many were able to improvise. One family, for example, did not have a cardboard box for an activity from the Ramps Unit, so they experimented with pillows and storage containers instead, saying “sometimes we may not have [materials] and so we usually make do with whatever we’ve got.”

Figure 3
A mother and son collect items around their home to carry out an investigation for the PEEP Family Science Ramps Unit

Consider families’ needs when choosing media apps

It is important to keep in mind that not all households have consistent internet access and reliable connectivity; therefore, media resources that require streaming might not reach all families. The initial design of PEEP Family Science offered videos embedded online and used a printed guide to walk parents through the hands-on activities. During the pilot testing, researchers learned that not all families had consistent access to the internet to retrieve the videos and resources for each unit. However, almost all parents had access to a smartphone or tablet, often older models with limited storage capacity. Based on these findings, the team revised PEEP Family Science to be delivered through apps that required limited storage capacity, were compatible with older operating systems, and could be downloaded once and then used offline. In addition, parents and educators noted that the print guides used during the pilot testing were text-heavy and thus challenging for parents with lower levels of literacy and limited time to spend on the activities. Developing the app required reducing the text and breaking down the activities into smaller steps. In our study, the shift to the app format greatly improved accessibility for parents.

Figure 4
A mother uses her smartphone to record her daughter’s voice at different pitches and volumes during a PEEP Family Science Sounds activity

Identify and discuss best practices for using media with young children

Challenges that a few families and educators faced pointed to the importance of explicitly and directly addressing parents’ and educators’ concerns about media and offering guidance for how best to use media as an educational tool when using media-based apps. The design of PEEP Family Science implicitly incorporates best practices for using media with children: The apps are parent-facing, encourage parent–child cowatching rather than child watching alone, contain embedded questions for parents and children to discuss to help children attend to the important content in the videos, and connect media with hands-on exploration to support transfer from the screen to the real-world. Still, some parents and educators in the study expressed apprehension about using media with young children. Similarly, some educators felt incor­porating media distracted from bonding time between parents and children that the home-visiting programs promote. Others, however, reported that PEEP Family Science helped promote stronger family connections by, for example, providing opportunities for parents to spend one-on-one time with their child and bond over an engaging shared experience that supports learning. Findings also suggest that media engagement posed challenges for some parents, particularly parents who had trouble shifting their child’s attention from the videos to the hands-on activities. Providing parents with strategies for addressing this relatively common problem include suggesting that parents set expectations beforehand by talking with their children about why they are using the media and for how long, and what they will do next. Following the implementation study, WGBH updated the PEEP Family Science educator guides to include a discussion of best practices and tips for how to use educational media with young children.

Conclusion

Findings from our study on using PEEP Family Science with diverse families participating in home-visiting programs suggest that media-based apps hold substantial promise for engaging parents and children in science, particularly low-income families and parents who don’t feel confident about helping their children learn science. As one educator in our study put it, “[B]efore [parents] would just go to the park and let their children play in the playground. But now they get involved in the slide, because they can talk about ramps and colors, about what color they are seeing around them, or what sounds things make.” Media can offer families an easy entry point into science learning by modeling science exploration and communication; hands-on activities that use everyday household items and fit into families’ schedules can illustrate science concepts in the context of people’s daily lives. As we learned from the PEEP Family Science study, the app format has potential to bring joint media and hands-on engagement together in a way that is manageable, engaging, and fun for parents and their children. PEEP Family Science did not start out as an app but rather online videos and printed guides for families. We learned through the iterative design process that apps can be valuable for improving the accessibility of science materials, but only under certain circumstances. We did not test each individual feature of the intervention, but feedback from parents and educators suggest the value of the apps rested in their accessibility, developmentally appropriate content, engaging characters, and supports to connect media experiences to the off-screen world. Specifically, our findings suggest that apps that use video to model developmentally appropriate science exploration; provide families with bite-size, concrete steps using accessible language; include parent-facing elements that help parents guide their children through media and hands-on activities; and can be used offline and by older technology are likely to engage all families in science exploration. 

Acknowledgment

This study is supported by the National Science Foundation, grant #1612643. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in these materials are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

PEEP Family Science was developed by WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston: Children’s Media’s Marisa Wolsky; Education’s Mary Haggerty, Sonja Latimore, Borgna Brunner, and Gay Mohrbacher; and Digital’s Jillian Orr, Ayelet Ronen, Kevin Lesniewicz, Li Wei, Jeff Bartell, and Sienna Haines, along with Kal Gieber, Jesse Haley, Mollie Levin, Bill Shribman, Jay Thompson, and Lizzy Walbridge.

Additional resources

Below we offer recommendations for additional science apps and resources that parents and educators can use with young children and a guide for selecting quality resources.

  • How to Evaluate Online Science Resources for Early Learners: This article offers five guiding questions for educators and parents when vetting science resources for young children.
  • Cat in the Hat Builds That: Based on the animated series The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!, this PBS KIDS app includes science and engineering activities for children and their parents.
  • Early Science With Nico and Nor: This resource include a three-unit curriculum for plants, ramps, and shadows with app-based, digital, and hands-on activities.
  • Outdoor Family Fun With Plum: This PBS KIDS app offers daily outdoor activities for parents and children to explore their neighborhood and learn about nature.
  • Play and Learn Science: This app helps parents support their children with games and hands-on activities that focus on core science concepts and science inquiry skills.
  • Sid’s Science Fair: Based on the PBS KIDS animated series Sid the Science Kid, this app includes a series of games that engage children in core science and math concepts. 
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