Practical science and the messy data of children’s building blocks

Scientific theories can often be elegant, but the underbelly of scientific research is frequently messy, tiring work, and thoroughly inelegant. This is data collection. The same is true of cooking. No matter how beautifully planned a recipe can be on paper, inevitable practicalities always require pragmatic choices in its preparation. In carrying out our own data collection for the collaborative condition of our physical experiment at Newcastle’s Centre for Life, we encountered the challenging and thought-provoking practicalities that arise when working with children in the sometimes chaotic, constantly moving environment of the gallery floor. These are our experiences.

The data we collected are messy, in other words they are variable. Our idea was to get two, three, or more children to stand around a table and work together (the collaborative condition of our physical experiment) to construct something in the centre, using wooden blocks. This rarely occurred. Instead, with the provision of a footstool for smaller participants, the children frequently clustered around the protruding ‘peninsulas’ of our table. Or alternatively they took no permanent position and instead darted to and fro around the table’s edges to occupy different vantage points on their constructions, almost as bees construct their hive.

Messy data means there are multiple variables at play in each building group we observed. Children’s ages and sexes varied, as did their relations to each other (siblings, friends, strangers etc.). It is the job of data analysis to separate these variables out by comparing one group to another. We need this analysis because of a trade off we made between control over the experiment and the relevance of the experiment to the ‘real’ environment. By using children’s participation in a science centre exhibit as our experiment, we abstracted only somewhat from children’s ‘natural’ interactions with museum exhibits. We can therefore claim high relevance to the environment (‘ecological validity’), but we accordingly need intensive analysis after data collection to distinguish the variables at play.

In fact the varied behaviours of the children we observed appeared so interesting and accessible for data collection that we drew up a simple list of familiar behaviours (an ‘ethogram’) which we could note down as and when we saw them performed by the children. This neatly illustrates our pragmatic approach to data collection since the original idea was to focus just on the things children created from blocks. Among other variables, we collected information about where around the table children were standing, whenever they copied from each other, and each time they discussed their building or gave instructions.

By expanding into recording behaviours we hope to make use of these extra data to illuminate different perspectives on the findings from our first interest in the buildings themselves. Looking at behaviours allows us to ask questions such as: What is the impact of discussion on children’s innovation in building? Does the amount of copying correlate to different building types? and, What are the effects when children provide instruction to others? Asking these questions allows us a more comprehensive view of children’s collaborative building with blocks.

At the end of each build, we offered the children a sticker as a prize for participating. We give the child the sticker as a gift in return for our use of the data they have provided. It illustrates for the child that they have done us a favour by participating.

Of course the adult’s version of this symbol is the consent form. While issues of data privacy, security, and misuse are today widespread, we found most adults to be relaxed about their children’s participation. But some were anxious about the dangers of social media, some didn’t want their children filmed, others didn’t want to give family names or dates of birth. Collection of information from people can certainly be used for exploitative ends. Indeed the use of information derived from people without their consent can be considered a form of exploitation. In practicing ‘participatory’ action research, however, we try to generate new understandings in ways that we can all benefit.

We will therefore use our results to help the design of future exhibits at the Centre for Life. By doing data collection and research ‘in’ rather than ‘on’ the Centre for Life we hope not only that we can take part in the collective expansion of knowledge, but feed that knowledge back into the context from which we drew it to better understand and thereby improve that context for its visitors. This is our practical science.

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