The ABCs of STEM education

Name: Christina Citta
Majors: Early intervention; early childhood education and exceptional needs
Year: Junior
Hometown: Bartlett, Illinois
Faculty mentors: Jim Elicker, associate professor, Child Development and Family Studies; and Demetra Evangelou, assistant professor, Engineering Education

Building blocks: An honors student in Child Development and Family Studies, Christina is examining pre-engineering behaviors exhibited by preschoolers and the activities and lessons in the classroom that foster those behaviors. With help from her faculty mentors, she created a unique observation protocol to record pre-engineering behaviors displayed by children during free play and conducted the study at Purdue’s Miller Child Learning Center. She’s using the data from her research to write her honors thesis proposal and currently is experimenting with the creation of an engineering-focused preschool curriculum.

New frontiers: According to Christina, engineering in the early childhood classroom is not often addressed. Observing the pre-engineering skills and behaviors that children exhibit during play and interactions will be beneficial for teachers exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). However, there is no recognized way of doing this. “My focus is really on how the children interact with their peers, adults and environment,” explains Christina. “The effectiveness of communication, question asking and answering, the process that goes into play and the types of play are all considered and evaluated in this observation protocol. I hope to continue refining the observation protocol and eventually share it with teachers and parents.”

Square peg: Growing up in a “giant Italian family with kids everywhere,” Christina knew she wanted to work with children. She thought about becoming a pediatric physical therapist, but discovered during her first semester that a science-focused major wasn’t the right fit. Her advisor suggested Child Development and Family Studies. By the second semester, she had changed majors and felt right at home.

Impressionable age: Christina, who attended an engineering-focused academy during high school, says her interest in studying STEM at the preschool level is the perfect way to combine her interests. “Experiences at this age are so significant — they can be life changing. A lesson in the classroom might stimulate an activity at home or a way of thinking that continues with that child throughout their elementary years and even into higher education.”

Late for a very important date: As a prospective student, Christina and her parents missed their scheduled campus tour due to a difference in time zones. Things looked up though when a student worker in Purdue’s Visitor Information Center offered to take them on a personal tour. “She said she didn’t have a class so she’d be happy to show us around,” Christina recalls. “That really sold us on Purdue. Everyone was so genuine and willing to stop what they were doing to help us.”

By Tammy Weaver-Stoike

See more examples of undergraduate research at Purdue