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A naturalistic study of children and their parents in family learning courses in science

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A naturalistic study of children and their parents in family learning courses in science
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  JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING VOL. 22 NO. 8, PP. 723-741 (1985) A NATURALISTIC STUDY OF CHILDREN AND THEIR PARENTS IN FAMILY LEARNING COURSES IN SCIENCE zy KAREN OSTLUND, EUGENE GENNARO, and zyx ARION DOBBERT zy niversiry of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55 55 Abstract During the 1960s and 1970s a number of family learning projects evolved, most of which focused on pre-schoolers and their parents. The goal of some of these programs was to provide enjoyable, structured experiences in which parents and their children learned together. Recently, a number of institutions have been sponsoring enrichment science classes or learning experiences for parents and older children. The study described here is based on a project funded by the National Science Foundation (DISE No. 07872) which was attempting to show that it was possible to increase scientific literacy of two different age groups by simultaneously exposing parents and heir middle school children to short courses in science. The project is an outgrowth of a study previously repod (Gennaro, Bullock, Br Alden, 1980) carried out at the Minnesota Zoological Gardens. The study is based on data obtained during the first two years of the project and used various data gathering pmedure.~ uch as the use of questionnaires, interviews, observations, and cognitive testing. It was found that children register for the courses primarily because of interest in the subject matter of the courses and that parents register because of their desire to nutux the child and the child’s interest in the subject matter of the course. Both parents and children made significant gains in learning as measured by subject matter tests. Participants reported that the experience was both enjoyable and valuable. Children’s attitudes toward their parents and the course were sigpificantly higher if the children perceived a highly cooperative learning environment with their parents. Parents who scored in the medium or high range on the pretest had significantly more interactions with their children concerning infor- mation about course tasks than those who scored low on the pretest. Introduction Learning in the family is probably one of the most crucial of all educational z   experiences since it begins earliest in life, includes basic information necessary for future learning and survival, and continues throughout life Bobbitt Paolucci, 1976 . However, the single-parent family, the increase in the number of families with both parents working, the power of television to keep children occupied, and increased commuting distances have all had a part in decreasing the potential of children’s learning using their parents as teachers. Families who visit informal centers e.g., museums, zoos, planetariums, and nature centers) reveal that one of the primary z   1985 by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching Published by John Wiley Sons, nc. CCC 0022-4308/85/080723- 19 04.00  724 OSTLUND, GENNARO, AND DOBBERT zyx reasons for visiting such centers is for recreational experiences where they can “do things together” (Rosenfeld, 1979). Despite the fact that learning with family involvement has been recognized as an important part of the total educational process, very few family learning programs are described in the literature (The Smithsonian Family Learning Project, 1980; Miller-Mar- tin, 1975; Katz, 1978). Very little empirical data has been collected on the synergistic effects of parent-child interactions during family learning experiences in science. z Study Purpose To test whether or not parents and their children could have a valuable learning experience by taking a science course together at an informal science center, a pilot study was conducted which involved teaching a course in animal behavior to middle school children (grades 6, 7, and 8) and their parents at the Minnesota Zoological Gardens (Gennaro, Bullock, zyxwv   Alden, 1980). The results of that study suggested that providing science learning experiences in courses for parents and their middle school children may be an effective and rewarding method of increasing the scientific literacy of two age groups in our society. With funds from the National Science Foundation, the initial project was expanded and four additional courses were developed to be taught mainly at informal science centers. Middle school children and their parents are appropriate subjects for short courses in science since a great many topics can be taught which are of interest to zy oth groups. Moreover, shortly after middle school, children make decisions about which science courses to include in their high school programs. The courses, which were initially offered in the Minneapolis area have since been taught in Seattle, Milwaukee and Athens, Georgia. They were offered through community education programs and informal science learning centers (e.g., zoos, museums, nature centers, and planetar- iums). Most parents or their spouses who registered for the courses were from the professions or middle-management positions in business. About half of the children identified scientific careers as a part of their future plans. The overall goal of the program was to increase the scientific knowledge of both children and their parents by exposing them simultaneously to a short science course z n one of five topics (Communications Technology: Building Telegraphs, Telephones, and Radios; Microcomputers; Nighttime Astronomy; Animal Behavior; and Ecology). To reach this goal, attempts were made to do the following: increase the time parents and children spend together by involving them in a shared learning experience, both in the classroom and at home; make the learning activities interesting and challenging; and enrich and extend (not duplicate) the science being taught at middle/junior high schools. Selection of courses was based on responses received from 240 families interested in parent-child courses to a questionnaire distributed by science teachers in the Min- neapolis-St. Paul area listing topics that were not typically a part of the school cur- riculum (Gennaro, 1982). This study was designed to answer the following questions: A) Expectations zyxwv or Family Learning Experiences (1) What are the reasons participants take family learning classes? (2) What are the participants’ expectations of the experience?  FAMILY LEARNING COURSES 125 B) zyxwvuts earning Behavior in the Social Context of Family Learning Experiences z 3) What is the role assumed by participants in their interactions during z 4) How do parents and children learn together in family learning classes? (5) Do both parents and children make cognitive gains as a result of family (6) Do family learning classes contribute to changed attitudes toward learn- (7) Do family learning classes contribute to increased communication be- (8) How do cognitive and affective outcomes relate to the kind and amount shared learning activities? (C) Family Learning Outcomes learning courses in science? ing? tween family members? of verbal interaction by participants? zyx D) valuation of Family Learning Experiences (9) How do the participants feel the courses could be improved? Description of Courses and Settings The courses consisted of five weekly sessions that met on Saturday mornings for three hours. The Nighttime Astronomy course was the exception; it met on a weekday evening for two hours. All courses included regular home activities for parents and children to complete together. Class sizes ranged from six to twelve families (15-30 Communications Technology: Building Telegraphs, Telephones, and Radios in- troduced students to the principles of circuitry and modem communications systems. Experiences were designed for those without electronics background. Families exper- imented with batteries, bulbs, diodes, transistors, and electromagnets. They learned to use an oscilloscope to measure wave frequencies, and build a simple telegraph, a microphone, a crystal radio receiver, and an amplifier. Microcomputers introduced families to personal computers. Activities included learning to do simple programming, demonstrating how a computer does arithmetic, and exploring recreational and computer applications in order to better understand how Computers can be used. Activities in this course involved small group work at microcomputers and large group demonstrations. The Nighttime Astronomy course was taught at a planetarium and showed families how to observe celestial events. Participants took advantage of the permanently clear “skies” of a planetarium to identify constellations and to observe and predict star trails, the motion of planets, and moon phases and motion. Class activities included making a human model of the solar system, constructing an astrolabe for measuring the altitude and azimuth of stars, and building a hand-held telescope. Families also visited a local observatory. Animal Behavior was taught in a classroom at a local zoo that allowed for the use of live animals for demonstration and investigations. Additionally, there was access to zoo exhibits and behind-the-scenes areas. Families investigated zoo and laboratory animals’ responses to various environmental pressures such as temperature, humidity, and predator-prey interactions. They observed territoriality, aggression, and reproductive behavior in small mammals, birds, and tropical fish. Learning behavior people).  126 zyxwvusrqp STLUND, GENNARO, AND DOBBERT TABLE I Data-Gathering Procedures Used for Kinds of Information Sought zy ocedures Staff Focal Pairs Study Observations zyxwvuts f Questionnaires Cognitive - nterviews Participants Tests and Program Observa- Inter- Pre- Post- Documents tions views Course Course Expectations of Families Learning Behaviors of Families learning Outcomes of Families X X X X X Evaluation Of Courses X X was explored by observing birds and larger mammals. Each family was provided with a pair of gerbils for home study. The Ecology courses were taught at a nature center where the meeting room served as the classroom when it was needed. During the Winter Ecology Course, families were introduced to the tracking of animals, the banding of birds, and the study of muskrat houses. Class activities included preserving and studying snowflakes, building snow shelters, and investigating the water and mud from under the ice of a frozen lake. During the spring, families explored a cattail marsh from its tiny organisms to its territorial birds. Class activities included a fossil hunt and a wild foods lunch prepared by the families. zyxwv Data Gathering Procedures In this study, a variety of data sources were used to answer the research questions. The variety of approaches made it possible to verify conclusions from a number of sources and to guard against the accusation that the study’s findings are simply an artifact of a single method, a single data source, or a single investigator’s bias (Patton, 1980). The procedures are discussed below. Table I lists each of the data-gathering procedures used in seeking pertinent information. zyxw Program Documents and Staff Interviews Program documents served a dual purpose: (1) they were a basic source of in- formation about program activities and processes, and (2) they gave the investigator ideas about important questions to pursue through more direct observations and in- terviews. The program documents examined included the grant proposal, five curric- ular manuals, an overview manual and the first-year report to the National Science Foundation (Gennaro Heller, 1981). Interviews with the family learning staff revealed the expectations they held for the participants and their rationale for choosing the subject matter of the courses and learning activities.  FAMILY LEARNING COURSES 2 zy Focal Pairs Study-observation and Interview zyx he focal pairs study focused on parent-child dyads and used naturalistic inquiry, qualitative measurements of participant behavior and analysis of verbal interactions. From the participants in four of the courses, twelve focal pairs were selected in order to study their behavior and learning in detail during the courses. Such variations such as sex, grade level of children, background of the parent, etc. were taken into account in the selection of the focal pairs in order to increase confidence of the findings. The following data were collected: (a) the activity in which the focal pairs were involved; (b) the verbal interaction between focal pairs; (c) the facial expression of each focal individual; (d) the eye focus of each focal individual; (e) the body posture of the focal pairs in relation to each other; and (f) gestures of each focal individual. During the course of the study, the investigator found convenient opportunities, either before or after each class session, for conducting in-depth interviews with the focal pairs to find out how they viewed certain aspects of the program, perceived successes and frustrations, and for obtaining reactions to the kind of experience they were having. Near the end of the program, in-depth interviews were conducted with the focal pairs to find out what behaviors had changed, how they viewed the experience at that point in time, and what their suggestions for improving the courses were. This data were analyzed to find out what patterns, if any, characterized their participation in the program and what patterns of change were reported and observed by the program participants. Verbal Interaction Measure This measure was designed to follow a two-minute sequence of verbalizations of parents and children seated at the same table in the Communications Technology courses. The most common family composition in this course was the father-son pair. During any single class two or three observers continuously observed all 12 families in random sequence for the entire duration of the class. These observations provided data that showed who spoke, who was spoken to, and the type of verbalization. The average for interrate reliability of observer codings in occurrence, quality, and direc- tion was approximately zyxwv 4 . Pre-Course Questionnaires At the beginning of the first class session of each course, participants filled out z   questionnaire which obtained such information as parent occupation, age, number of children in the family, child grade level, prior experience in the science field of z he course, and reasons for takmg the course. Post-Course Questionnaires At the end of the last class session of each course, participants filled out a questionnaire which requested that participants rate the course, respond to questions about rewarding and frusttating experiences in the course, provide feelings about the family learning experience, describe what they liked about the course, identify ways the course might be improved, and give new insights about parentlchild behaviors.
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