Part 5 - Engineering for Equity: Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 1

Applying an Equity Lens to Investigate the Intersection of Engineering and Executive Function Skills


Family research and practice must be rebalanced from a focus on how families fail to how families, when challenged, can succeed.

(Walsh, 2003, p. 16)

Welcome to the Engineering for Equity blog series. As we shared previously, the Engineering for Equity project was an opportunity for us to gain some perspective on our current work, reflect on our assumptions, learn from others, and explore new ways that research could both uncover and help dismantle inequities and racism in STEM education. Our work is situated at the intersection of engineering education, family learning, early childhood, and equity. As informal STEM learning researchers, we focus on studying and supporting ways that young children and their families engage with and develop long-term interests in engineering and other STEM topics through everyday learning experiences outside of school, including how these experiences are connected across contexts and over time.

Over the last year, we spent time talking with families and leaders in our community, interviewing experts on the intersection of equity and STEM education across the country, and reading reports and literature. This blog series is the result of that process, which we hope will not only help advance our own thinking and practices but also serve as a catalyst for deeper discussions across these fields.

In today’s post, we reflect with our colleague and guest contributor, Dr. Shauna Tominey, on how these discussions over the last year shed light on a more recent strand of our work: investigating the intersection of engineering and executive function skills. Through our conversations with community partners and families, it has become clear that there is rich potential for engineering education efforts to support executive function and other fundamental aspects of development in early childhood. These connections may be a powerful way that engineering education research can address equity in STEM—by connecting with broader learning goals valued by families and communities.

However, much of the existing work on executive function is fraught by many of the equity issues we have raised throughout this blog series, including deficit perspectives and lack of authentic collaboration with parents and families. In this post, we explore some of these challenges and possible ways forward as we prepare to launch a new NSF-funded initiative designed to engage parents as research partners in understanding how we can leverage informal family engineering activities to support the development of executive function skills for preschool-age children from Latinx families.

Supporting Executive Function Skills through Engineering Activities

If you ask the parent of a preschooler to tell you about their child’s executive function skills, you might be met with a look of confusion. But ask that same parent what their child does well and what they are working on, and you will have a very different conversation. Many parents are eager to share how much their child has grown, how quickly they are learning, the struggles they have following directions at certain places or certain times of day, as well as the ups and downs of managing big feelings. At face value, there is no mention of the term “executive function” anywhere in this response—but evidence of executive function is everywhere. Over the past few decades, executive function has been a hot topic in the research world. And yet, a critical voice is still missing from these conversations: the voice of families. Even the way executive function is defined is heavy with jargon and the specific constructs are steeped in academic theory.

In research terms, executive function is defined as a broad set of interrelated cognitive skills required for organizing and carrying out purposeful, goal-directed activities, such as focus and self-control, working memory, and flexible thinking (Diamond, 2013; Meltzer, 2018; NRC, 2000). Decades of research suggest that these skills are critical for children’s development and long-term success inside and outside school (Blair, 2016; Immordino-Yang et al., 2018; Jones et al., 2016; NRC, 2000). Research also suggests that early childhood is a critical stage for the development of these skills and other related aspects of self-regulation (Blair, 2016; Jones et al., 2016; NRC, 2000). For example, preschool-age children are developing their abilities to inhibit and control their behavior, focus and sustain their attention, flexibly shift their thinking and strategies, and understand and manage their emotions (Ackerman & Friedman-Krauss, 2017; Jones et al., 2016).

Educators and researchers are increasingly recognizing that executive function skills are central to engagement with STEM (Gropen et al., 2011; NVF, 2020). Inspired by discussions with our project partners and families, we believe early engineering design activities, such as those we have been developing through Head Start on Engineering, offer a promising approach to supporting executive function skills in a way that is engaging, contextualized, and strength based (Bustamante et al., 2018; Gold, 2017). For example, executive function skills provide a critical foundation for children to persevere, manage frustration, and problem-solve as they engage in meaningful engineering learning activities (Gold et al., 2021). Since parents and other significant adults play a central role in supporting learning at this age (NASEM, 2016), we also must partner with parents to help them understand and scaffold their children’s executive function development, both in specific situations and over time.

Although promising, the connection between executive function and engineering in early childhood has not been extensively studied. From an equity lens, there are many challenges to studying executive function and its connection with STEM—but also many important reasons to do so. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority of research studies on executive function in early childhood take a deficit-based approach, focusing on the “problems” within communities rather than strengths and assets (NVF, 2020). Similarly, much of the work in education on this topic has focused primarily on compliance as an outcome, rather than the ways that executive function skills support children’s ability to grow and thrive throughout their lives. Currently, there is little understanding of the ways that families perceive and value executive function, the strengths and assets they bring to supporting their children’s development, and the different culturally relevant approaches that families might use to support executive function for their children. Shifting this lens in both research and practice can only happen when children and families are centered in this work in a meaningful way.

Introducing the Diálogos Project

With the support of the National Science Foundation, we now have the opportunity to explore some of the challenges and help co-construct a more holistic, family-centered approach to engineering and executive function skills in collaboration with Latinx families in our community.


Diálogos is a pilot project that will engage parents as research partners to explore how we can leverage informal family engineering activities to support the development of executive function skills for preschool-age children from Latinx families. Led by TERC, the project is a collaboration with Oregon State University and community partners at Metropolitan Family Service and Mt. Hood Community College Head Start. The full project name (Diálogos: Harnessing Latinx Community Cultural Wealth to Support Executive Function in Early Childhood through Family Engineering Experiences) reflects our commitment to not only identifying ways that engineering activities support executive function skill development for young children and their families but also to collaborate with Latinx families to explore the deeper questions of how families think about executive function skills, what knowledge and practices families already possess related to executive function skill development, and the ways that engineering activities can build on and amplify these existing practices.

Using asset-based approaches, the two-year exploratory project will develop and test a participatory, dialogic method in which parents are central collaborators, sharing their in-depth perspectives and partnering with researchers to develop conceptual frameworks and new approaches. The parent dialogue series will be supported by a systematic literature review examining the intersections between engineering design, executive function, and the strengths and assets within Latinx families.

Anticipating Our Equity Challenges

Although we are excited about this new opportunity, we are keenly aware of the challenges and pitfalls that lay ahead. Given our reflections over the last year, we already anticipate a number of areas where we will need to think carefully about how the project will help disrupt rather than perpetuate systematic inequities in education. In next week’s post, we will share three principles that we hope will help us integrate equity into our exploration of executive function and engineering: (a) families are already thinking about and supporting executive function development, (b) families should decide what makes sense for them and their children, and (c) executive function is a small part of supporting children’s learning and development.


Navigate to other blog posts in this series here:

  1. Introduction - Engineering for Equity
  2. Family Collaboration, post 1
  3. Family collaboration, post 2
  4. Applying Asset-based Approaches
  5. Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 1
  6. Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 2
  7. Engaging Families with Engineering, post 1

About the Authors

Scott Pattison, PhD, is a Research Scientist at TERC. He has been studying and supporting STEM education and learning since 2003, as an educator, program and exhibit developer, evaluator, and researcher. His current work focuses on engagement, learning, and interest and identity development in free-choice and out-of-school environments, including museums, community-based organizations, and everyday settings. He has led numerous informal STEM education research projects and initiatives, including Head Start on Engineering, Storybook STEM, Math in Making, and REVEAL.

Smirla Ramos Montañez, PhD, is a bilingual (Spanish/English) and bicultural (Puerto Rican/American) Family STEM Learning Researcher at TERC. She has led and supported a variety of projects, including program and exhibit evaluation as well as STEM education research designed to provide accessible, culturally relevant, and engaging experiences for diverse audiences. She is currently the PI of the Diálogos project, which will engage parents as research partners to explore how we can leverage informal family engineering activities to support the development of executive function skills for preschool-age children from Latinx families.

Shauna Tominey, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Practice & Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University. As a former early childhood teacher and parenting educator, Shauna blends practical experience with research to develop programs aimed at promoting social-emotional skills for children and the adults in their lives and is co-developer of the Red Light, Purple Light self-regulation intervention. She also serves as the Principal Investigator for the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative, a statewide initiative providing high-quality parenting education to families with children of all ages. With specific interest in trauma-informed and anti-racist approaches to social and emotional learning, she is a member of the LiberatED collaborative. Dr. Tominey is the author of “Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children” and a regular contributor for PBS Parents.


Blair, C. (2016). Executive function and early childhood education. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 10, 102–107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.05.009

Bustamante, A., Greenfield, D., & Nayfeld, I. (2018). Early childhood science and engineering: Engaging platforms for fostering domain-general learning skills. Education Sciences, 8(3), 144. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci8030144

Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 135–168. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750

Gold, Z. S. (2017). Engineering play: Exploring associations with executive function, mathematical ability, and spatial ability in preschool [Doctoral dissertation, Purdue University]. https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/dissertations/AAI10682945/

Gold, Z. S., Elicker, J., Evich, C. D., Mishra, A. A., Howe, N., & Weil, A. E. (2021). Engineering play with blocks as an informal learning context for executive function and planning. Journal of Engineering Education, jee.20421. https://doi.org/10.1002/jee.20421

Gropen, J., Clark-Chiarelli, N., Hoisington, C., & Ehrlich, S. B. (2011). The Importance of executive function in early science education. Child Development Perspectives, 5(4), 298–304. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1750-8606.2011.00201.x

Immordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L., & Krone, C. (2018). The brain basis for integrated social, emotional, and academic development. The Aspen Institute. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/the-brain-basis-for-integrated-social-emotional-and-academic-development/

Jones, S., Bailey, R., Barnes, S., & Partee, A. (2016). Executive function mapping project: Untangling the terms and skills related to executive function and self-regulation in early childhood (OPRE Report # 2016-88; p. 68). Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Meltzer, L. (Ed.). (2018). Executive function in education: From theory to practice (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Parenting matters: Supporting parents of children ages 0-8. National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child development. National Academy Press.

NewSchools Venture Fund. (2020). EF+MATH program: Executive functions, mathematics, and equity: A primer. NewSchools Venture Fund. https://www.efmathprogram.org/resources

Walsh, F. (2003). Family resilience: A framework for clinical practice. Family Process, 42(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2003.00001.x



Part 5 - Engineering for Equity: Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 1
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Scott Pattison, Smirla Ramos Montañez

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