On April 14, undergraduate students in the University of Arizona engaged learning course LING 392/492 presented their project to members of the UA, museum, and Tucson communities. Guests could try their hand at matching mouth shapes with sounds or play a game of Jenga to experience learning through play. Circling the room were seven students from the class eager to share what they’ve learned.
The course and research project, which was supported by a University of Arizona 100% Engagement grant, was led by UA linguist Cecile McKee, who is also the associate dean for research in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She partnered on the grant with Autumn Rentmeester, the development and operations director for Children's Museum Tucson.
With the funding, McKee and her team designed and built a mobile exhibit with two science games. Students this semester used the “Move Your Mouth” game, in which children learned how their mouths make three vowel sounds. In the process, the children practiced scientific processes such as gathering information to help them make new hypotheses.
Any children who visited the museum could play Move Your Mouth. By working with children of different ages and backgrounds, students learned skills such as accommodation, awareness, flexibility, patience, and spontaneity.
“I’ve always wanted to work with kids. After taking the course, I’m now sure I want to work with kids,” said Lexie Sorrentino, a psychology major. “I loved the course and learned a lot. I learned to be patient with the kids. I learned to pace myself because some of the kids will pick it up faster than others.”
The course also included survey-based research. Children between the ages of 2 and 8 who were accompanied by a parent or legal guardian could participate in that research. In these situations, one student engaged with the child, and the other student helped the parent take the survey on an iPad.
More than 50 percent of the families surveyed by the class had a household income of less than $45,000 year. This is not surprising because Tucson is the nation’s fifth poorest large city, and the museum finds similar patterns in its own studies.
The students also recorded the children’s progress in completing the games to assess if learning was occurring. They asked the parents to indicate whether their children looked like they were having fun.
“We try to explain to the parents about learning through play,” McKee said. “The parent can observe that the child is enjoying the game. At the end, we ask the kid what they learned and the parents get to hear that. The parents are perceiving that a child can be playing a game and learning at the same time.”
Hillary Van Alsburg, the director of philanthropy and learning for Children’s Museum Tucson, is excited by the collaboration. “We love partnering with the UA. Students in the class came in every single week and they did a ton of work. The research will help not just the museum but the whole community.”
In the course, the students also read about and discussed the relationship between poverty and education. Linguistics Ph.D. candidate Elly Zimmer said that many students were surprised to learn about the high level of poverty in Tucson and how kids from certain neighborhoods are disadvantaged before they even start school.
Preschool education is often unaffordable for families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Places like Children’s Museum Tucson offer another way to enrich a child’s early education.
“The readings were important to help us understand the relationship between the museum and the community,” said Hannah Zedek, a linguistics and psychology major. “The role of the museum in the community is exposing children to these science ideas in a fun way. By learning about achievement gaps we were able to see the impact our work would have.”
The course also had an impact on the students.
“I learned so much in the class,” said Noemi Rodriguez, a linguistics major. “I found my calling, which is that I want to work for a nonprofit and help address specific issues that are happening in neighborhoods that are at an economic disadvantage.”
Genesis Grijalva, an anthropology and Hispanic linguistics double major, was a coordinator for the course. She worked with McKee last semester helping to design and pilot the project along with Zimmer. Grijalva, a first-generation college student, said working closely with McKee on the project has inspired her to consider graduate school.
“Cecile has high expectations, and she’s challenged me,” Grijalva said. “Just from being around her and seeing the work that she’s doing, I’m now thinking of applying to a Ph.D. program.”
Lisa Winslow, an anthropology and linguistics major, took the course hoping to learn more about early childhood education and in the process became a fan of engaged learning courses.
“I absolutely loved the class, and I’m really sad that it’s is coming to an end,” Winslow said. “Book learning is great, but once I leave the classroom, I might or might not take that knowledge with me. With this course, I can say that I gained experience and skills, and I can take that with me for future endeavors.”