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Background: The preschool years are a time when children play to learn and when cognitive skills rapidly develop. Foundational 21st century skills, including STEM skills, also emerge (U.S. Department of Education, 2011), with gender differences as a hotly debated topic (Zell, Krizan, & Teeter, 2015).
According to Fisch’s (2000) Capacity Model, children have limited cognitive resources to devote to a task. Therefore, learning depends on children’s skills at allocating mental resources to educational content, which may improve transfer between 2D screens and 3D objects. Popular media characters can bridge the 2D to 3D transfer divide (Calvert et al., 2018). The current study examines gender differences in preschoolers’ transfer of STEM problem solving from a 2D app featuring Curious George, a popular media character, to 3D toys.
Method: Eighty-six preschoolers (M = 60.53 months; SD = 5.43 months; 46 boys) were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: Curious George STEM app, Curious George art app, or no app control group. Children in app conditions played the game for approximately 20 minutes and answered questions about their gaming experience. All children completed three transfer tasks that appeared in the STEM app (see Figure 1). Children’s transfer performance was coded for their understanding of the scientific concepts of pulleys, cranks, and leveling bridges (α = .92). Parents also completed a survey about children’s prior exposure to Curious George.
Results: According to parents, none of the children had played the STEM app; three had played the art app.
A regression analysis with condition, age, and gender as predictors of transfer yielded a significant model, F (3, 84) = 6.48, p = .001, R2 = .16. Older children, boys, and the control group (compared to the STEM group) performed significantly better on transfer, ps ≤ .04.
Within the STEM condition, a regression analysis predicting transfer with age, gender, proportion of difficulty with game mechanics (e.g., controlling speed), and perceived game difficulty yielded a significant model, F (4, 29) = 5.95, p = .001, R2 = .38. Older children and boys performed significantly better on transfer, ps < .04. Transfer performance decreased the more children struggled with game mechanics, p = .03. Perceived game difficulty was not significant.
Familiarity with Curious George through books predicted better transfer in the STEM condition, t (31) = -2.10, p = .04, d = .36, (M = 4.11, SD = 1.10 for children with Curious George book exposure versus M = 3.00, SD = 1.00 for children without Curious George book exposure).
Discussion: Consistent with Fisch’s (2000) Capacity Model, young children had a 2D to 3D transfer deficit when the 2D task was challenging, suggesting a depletion in mental resources when they struggled with game mechanics. Our findings also suggest an early advantage for older children and boys in STEM tasks. Within the STEM condition, children with prior exposure to Curious George books performed better on transfer. Cross-media platforms, then, may improve transfer, particularly those in which media characters bridge 2D and 3D experiences (Gola et al., 2013).
Naomi Ruth Aguiar, University of Wisconsin Whitewater
Molly K. Biedermann, Georgetown University
Christina J. Duval, Georgetown University
Elizabeth A. Fantini, Georgetown University
Sandra Calvert, Georgetown University