One of the burning questions in the field of education is how to motivate students to really engage in learning about the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Researchers at the University of California’s Rossier School of Education sought a few years ago to respond to that need by building a science instruction unit for 4th graders designed around Hot Wheels cars, a longtime staple of toy boxes and playrooms across the nation.
The resulting curriculum unit, known as Speedometry, seeks to teach students about potential and kinetic energy, gravity, and velocity through activities that require them to race and crash the tiny cars on tracks. Researchers said they designed the lessons to align with the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core State Standards.
The program, sponsored by the Mattel Children’s Foundation, has now been tested with more than 1,600 students in 59 classrooms in east Los Angeles. Researchers shared the results with conference-goers this week at the American Educational Research Association’s 100th annual conference here. Here’s what the investigators learned:
Did the students learn more science?
As part of the experiment, entire 4th grade classrooms were randomly assigned to either use the experimental unit or teach the regular science curriculum to students in the usual way. The quid pro quo was that the control group teachers would get to use the toy-based program at a later date. What the researchers found was that the experimental students did indeed get more correct answers than their control-group peers on a 20-question test given at the end of the unit.( They scored 10.51 correct responses versus 9.17 for the control group.)
Students in the toy unit also said they were “interested” and “excited” by the lessons—more so than their peers in the traditional classes did. They also reported being less “bored,” “confused,” or “frustrated” by science than they had been before the start of the unit.
Were girls just as engaged as boys in physics learning?
“Toys are very gendered today,” said Gale Sinatra, one of the researchers on the project. “That was one of the things we were really concerned about.” But the results showed that girls were just as likely as boys to report positive feelings about the experience. The same was true for English-language learners, who made up 39 percent of the study sample, and special education students. More significantly, Sinatra said, girls’ negative feelings about science decreased by the end of the unit.
Did the students get too excited by the toys?
Teachers were worried about that, said Sinatra, who is a professor of education and psychology and the associate dean for research at Rossier. In practice, however, the 4th graders managed to get the work done. The study showed that teachers were able to put 94 percent of the curricular elements of the program in place.
The kindergartners who are testing the curriculum now present more of a challenge in that regard. “In kindergarten, they got so excited they practically passed out,” Sinatra said. Eventually, though, the researchers hope to develop and test a curriculum that spans the elementary school years.
Will the Hot Wheels curriculum’s commercial ties be a problem?
The Mattel Foundation is, of course, tied to Mattel, the commercial maker of Hot Wheels cars. But Sinatra said the foundation has agreed to make 10,000 units of the 4th grade curriculum, or 33,000 kits, freely available to teachers. Each kit contains 40 cars and 100 feet of track and is available in either English or Spanish.
“So they’re not being asked to buy anything,” Sinatra said of the teachers. “And most kids probably have any number of Hot Wheels at home already.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the numbers of free kits and units available to teachers.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.