Keeping young girls interested in math and science:new kind of "book" series will help

November 26, 2000

Studies show that girls tend to stay away from or drop out of science and engineering studies at the college level. While studying engineering at Stanford, Mitzi Vernon, assistant professor in the department of architecture at Virginia Tech, kept asking herself "Why is engineering and science such a struggle for females?" Out of this question, she has been developing an answer through tangible learning tools to helpyoung girls feel more comfortable and familiar with tough science concepts.

With a $95,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Vernon hopes to capture the attention of girls ages 8-11, and maintain their interest in math and science. She is developing interCONNECTIONS, a series of book-like modular toys/boardgames embedded with mechanical mechanisms. The "books" can be physically connected like a three-dimensional puzzle, to illustrate how specific concepts, such as atomic structure, the Pythagorean Theorem, music, color, and magnetic fields, are interconnected to each other.

The "book" series is a result of the belief that education is a non-flat thinking adventure, especially for girls, Vernon says. With sets of pages that are physically interactive, books are a metaphor for how girls learn and think, rather than two-dimensional entities bound on the left. Key findings indicated to Vernon that 1) the interests of the girls were consistently socially-oriented, 2) the tendency of girls is to want things to be tangible, collectible, and communal, 3) girls are specifically inclined to create character and storyline in their play activity, 4) there is a correlation between the lack of interest in computer games and their general feelings about technology.

interCONNECTIONS books are concrete demonstrations of less concrete ideas, such as magnetic fields, electricity, light, and sound. The books are designed for girls in that they bring intangible concepts to the physical world through the metaphors that girls are most engaged in (e.g., their faces, each other). A signficant body of research supports that women and girls have a more symbolic and interpersonal approach to learning, Vernon points out.

Each book has one or two special boards that have mechanical and interactive mechanisms embedded in them; this is unlike the popular "pop up" construct. The interCONNECTIONS books have a layered system of components in between boards and are activated by levers and dials. Vernon will be working with engineers from Lord Corporation using their magnetorheological fluid technology, and consultants from Design Research Associates, Inc. on the mechanics and usability testing of the "books." Phoebe's Field is the first book in the series, which will be followed by The Universe is in My Face and My Horizon. All will be tactile, visual, colorful, and appealing to the senses, Vernon says.
-end-
Mitzi Vernon is assistant professor in industrial design in Virginia Tech's department of architecture. She can be contacted at 540-231-2763 or vernon@vt.edu

PR Contact: Sarah Newbill
newbill@vt.edu 540-231-2108

Researcher: Mitzi Vernon
540-231-2763 or vernon@vt.edu

Virginia Tech

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