STEM Through Play: Meaningful Learning


Imagine groups of kids gathered around toy racing tracks and colorful mini cars. They’re building ramps, testing out which cars go farther and what makes them go faster. Girls and boys are engaged in the activities and shouting out the names of the cars or ideas for what to do next. Now imagine that in this process: they’re learning how to think and act like scientists. They’re making predictions, gathering data, displaying results, examining patterns, developing explanations based on scientific principles and presenting their results.The USC Rossier team had this vision when we started creating Speedometry, a free-to-use curriculum designed for fourth grade students that utilizes Hot Wheels toys to teach basic principles in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program is a result of a partnership between the USC Rossier School of Education and the Mattel Children’s Foundation.

The idea for Speedometry was sparked several years ago when I (Julie) had a discussion with a friend of mine who worked for Mattel at the time. As mothers of young boys who regularly played with Hot Wheels, we wondered how we could incorporate the toys our children play with (in combination with the professional work we did) to improve STEM learning through play.

How could we use the toys that our children have been playing with for years to create meaningful learning in and out of school?

After many meetings and generous support from the Mattel Foundation, we at USC Rossier put together a team — including faculty (with expertise in mathematics, science, assessment and teaching) and practicing classroom teachers — to co-develop several elementary school curricular units. Our faculty also worked with an expert in parent education to develop Family Engagement activities to accompany the curriculum, allowing family members to extend the STEM learning at home.

At USC Rossier, we knew it was important for educators to know that we developed the curricular units to align with Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core State Standards in both mathematics and English language arts. We wanted to use its foundation of the 5E instructional model. Once we drafted and revised the lessons, we pilot tested the curricular units in three schools, involving 18 teachers and 378 students, many of whom were English Language Learners (ELLs). In the pilot we randomly assigned approximately half of the teachers to implement Speedometry (treatment) and half to implement it several weeks later (delayed treatment), gathering data from the students and teachers in all classrooms.

What We Learned from Our Speedometry Pilot Program

We learned a lot from the pilot results. First, interviews and surveys with participating teachers and our observations of instruction identified areas in the curriculum that required clarification or greater scaffolding. In fact, we reconvened the original team of teachers and USC faculty to respond to this feedback and the revised, greatly improved curriculum is what you can find online. Second, the pilot test provided promising — albeit preliminary (remember, this is a small sample) — findings about the effects of Speedometry on kids and teachers. We found that fourth graders in the treatment group were more interested in STEM and displayed more positive emotions than those in the control group (as measured with pre and post surveys).

Fourth graders in the treatment classrooms learned more (i.e., this group showed significant gain between the pre- and post-test compared to the control group on a mathematics and science knowledge assessment consisting of multiple choice and open-ended questions). Most importantly, we found no difference in these effects between boys and girls.

We received positive feedback from participating teachers, who generally reported that the units aligned with their instructional goals. They found the 5E model to be very useful (“The Es are great!”), and said that they would use the units again in the future. They also reported that Speedometry promoted improvement in student engagement, motivation, interest and learning in math and science. It was also equally effective for all boys, girls and ELLs.

Finally — and we find this very encouraging — teachers reported that using Speedometry positively affected them in many ways, such as helped deepen their motivation to teach science inquiry skills. They also reported that they have plans to continue using the pedagogical strategies embedded in the curriculum. One fourth grade teacher explained, “I did like the elaboration and giving the kids space to kind of create their own experiments … I would do more of that in the future …You have to relinquish control for a little bit and let them make a mess and be okay that they are going to clean it up and they are not going to turn it into play time.”

Dr. Julie Marsh is an Associate Professor at the USC Rossier School of Education. Marsh specializes in research on policy implementation, educational reform, and accountability.

Robert Danielson is a PhD student at USC Rossier School of Education with a concentration in Educational Psychology.