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International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) –

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction

journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/ijcci

Problem-based science, a constructionist approach to science literacy

in middle school
Christa Flores
Asheville Museum of Science, Asheville NC, FabLearn, Stanford, CA, United States

article info a b s t r a c t
Article history: This paper describes a four-year observation using a model designed and tested in a middle school maker
Received 24 February 2017 space, called problem-based science (PbS). PbS was used as the primary model for a middle school science
Received in revised form 11 October 2017 curriculum adapted by the tools and mindsets of the maker movement. PbS is learning through inventing
Accepted 5 November 2017
and problem solving — while using the latest in fabrication technology, like 3D printers and laser cutters,
Available online xxxx
as well as more traditional making skills, like electronics, robotics, sewing and carpentry. PbS is based on
Keywords: Seymour Papert’s constructionism, set to a science curriculum taught full time in a makerspace or fablab.
Curriculum design Bridging ideas in design thinking, maker education, and applied math and science, the term problem-
Design science based science was used to describe how learning would look, sound, and feel different in a makerspace,
Learning spaces design when a focus was on learner-centered curriculum. The design and testing of this curriculum took place as
Science literacy part of the 5th and 6th grade science courses offered at a private (non-public) school in California (USA)
Maker education the fall of 2012, through the spring of 2016. Through daily formative assessment, as well as exit surveys,
Mindsets the patterns and benefits of learning in a self-directed learning space, designed for constructionism,
Problem-based science
were observed. This paper shares the highlights of those years. Video taped exit surveys conducted by
Constructivism the author, show that self-direction is both challenging and rewarding, students often felt trusted and
Inclusivity respected, even if they did not always feel supported in a manner common in a more teacher directed
classroom setting. Daily informal classroom observations revealed that using student driven, open-ended
problem solving, rather than a 100% teacher led, step by step lab, lends to a more diverse pool of leadership
practice in students and higher engagement in hard problems. Students typically seen as struggling in
traditional classrooms, identified as experts and successful learners in this setting. Lastly, using PbS as a
model for science literacy allows the youngest of learners to practice mindsets and habits typical of real
scientists and inventors, fostering early identify formation in STEM fields.
© 2017 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

0. Introduction in constructivism, however, or the belief that learners should

construct their own scientific understanding through making and
This study took place at the Hillbrook School, an independent doing, and real life discoveries. When students make models, de-
school in the state of California that serves Junior Kindergarten sign tools for inquiry, or build inventions to learn science, this
(age 3) through 8th grade (age 13) students. In effort to make is constructionism or making in science. Piaget’s Constructivism
science education more inclusive, as well as relevant to a changing alone is difficult to measure or make visible. Papert’s Construc-
and unpredictable future, the school’s fifth and sixth grade sci- tionism, alternatively, is based on children making artifacts or
ence curriculum was redesigned in the spring of 2012 to be 100% some physical evidence of learning that makes their thinking and
constructivist and constructionist based. Constructivism is Jean learning visible [3]. When you add the idea of constructionism for
Piaget’s learning theory of learning through experience [1]. Con- real world problem solving with a user in mind while designing,
structionism is a learning theory first championed by Seymour Pa- you get Problem-based Science.
pert, based on the making of artifacts to construct new knowledge The goal of using the PbS model was to increase science liter-
[2]. Constructionism is commonly known in elementary through acy, while fostering the mindset of creative problem solvers. Sci-
secondary learning environments as ‘‘Maker Education’’. The term ence literacy is defined here as using applied content knowledge,
Problem-based Science, is loosely based on the design thinking while practicing safe and ethical approaches to inquiry during
trend first coined in the Bay Area of California, by IDEO founder the practice of constructionism, or invention literacy. PbS allows
David Kelly. The underlying pedagogy of PbS is more deeply rooted students to construct scientific literacy by behaving like a real
scientist or engineer. David Perkins, author of the book Making
E-mail address: cflores@ashevillescience.org. Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform

2212-8689/© 2017 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Please cite this article in press as: C. Flores, Problem-based science, a constructionist approach to science literacy in middle school, International Journal of Child-Computer
Interaction (2017), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcci.2017.11.001.
2 C. Flores / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) –

Education, says this gives students ‘‘threshold experiences, that 1. Deep projects take time. When we spend more than a mo-
stimulate curiosity, discovery, imagination, camaraderie and cre- ment on an observation or task, we make deeper, more
ativity’’ [4]. The author would add to Perkins’ list; joy, engagement rewarding observations. Craftsmanship and research are the
and pride of ownership. behavioral embodiment of this concept.
2. Learning to problem solve, to create versus consume, is a
1. Methods fundamental part of living a liberated existence. Exercising
creativity and self-exploration is as important as learning
Adapting constructionism to a science course is possible when facts, that were discovered by others. This is the core of
pedagogy and learning space design are reimagined concurrently. constructivism and the true spirit of exploration. Practicing
Open-ended prompts and problems instead of rote, or 100% creativity builds creative confidence.
teacher driven work was employed. Second, the design of a self-
3. Autonomy is not a privilege, but the right of the human child
directed learning space that allows student access to creative
and essential to the intellectual and spiritual fulfillment of
technologies (also known as a makerspace) was employed for this
the individual. Learning self-governance through construc-
study. All PbS classes were held in a room designed with tools
tive autonomy is central to self-actualization.
for group work, brainstorming, self-documentation, basic wood
4. Failure is not a measure of a person, it is a natural con-
and metal working, electronics, 3D printing, laser cutting, sewing,
sequence of trying something new and of learning. Failure
painting, and programming. The makerspace, known as the Hill-
brook iLab, functioned as a drop in makerspace when not employed teaches us what works and what does not. Failure is essen-
for fifth or sixth grade science, and hosted STEM (Science, Technol- tial feedback for all learners, engineers and scientists.
ogy, Engineering, Math) related electives for seventh–eighth grade
1.2. ‘‘The prompt’’
During this study, teacher to student ratio was most often 1:20.
To lower the ratio, volunteers/mentors would be asked to join the
iLab to share their skills in electronics, programming, woodwork- Because PbS allows for individualized, learner driven experi-
ing, sewing, etc. Volunteers ranged from parents and grandparents, ences, PbS lessons do not all look alike. Sometimes, students are
to local experts, to distant experts through the use of Skype. All 5th presented with open-ended problems, called prompts. Prompts in
and 6th grade science classes met for five hours (two classes were PbS lessons are best likened to a game. Like most games, there
doubled back to back to create one two hour work time) per six day are goals and rules. The goals offer the big picture, like ‘‘get the
rotation. Total observation time allotted to the design and testing ball over the goal line’’, while the rules make the game purposeful
of PbS occurred over eight academic semesters, between the fall of (content specific), safe and fun. We call the goals of the PbS game
2012 and the spring of 2016. ‘‘prompts’’. Once given the prompts, students solve a problem
To collect data on the effects of using PbS as a model in middle using their knowledge or passion for skills related to t.e.a.m.s.
school, baseline surveys, in the form of paper based questionnaires, Using prompts, rather than a fixed set of instructions, is an
were conducted in the fall to assess student attitudes and self- open-ended approach to learning that affords students choice and
identity around issues of creativity and a perceived value for fixing voice, and promotes confidence, engagement and self-esteem [5].
or making objects. Paper based exit surveys were also given to 5th An example of a prompt might be ‘‘Make something that can move
and 6th graders, and video taped interviews of 5th and 6th graders a 75 g steel ball from point A to B, that uses two or more forms of en-
were conducted by the author and science faculty of the Hillbrook ergy’’. Once given the prompt, students are given weeks to months
school. While only small shifts in attitude were revealed by the (Driving Principle 1) to form teams based on passion and/or skill
paper surveys, more probing questions utilized during the filmed sets, brainstorm, then test and iterate on various solutions (Driving
interviews, revealed evidence of increased self-efficacy around Principles 2, 4). No solution will look the same, allowing for a highly
finding, addressing and designing solutions to real problems. Ide- differentiated learning experience for each student or group of
ally, the interviews would be conducted by an outside researcher students. The open-endedness of prompts provides students with
that the students did not have a personal relationship with, but that control over the ‘‘why, how and what’’ of their learning journey in
would require partnering with a university and or funding, which a way that a learner needs and values (Driving Principle 3).
as a small private school we did not have. A complete literature Once a learner is given time to see themselves as a creative,
review on the subjects of problem and design-based pedagogy problem solvers, they are ready for the next phase of PbS. By
were not possible during this study due to a lack of access to non- the end of the school year students may be charged with finding
open source research articles. Consideration was made, regarding their own problems to solve. They are prompted to do this by
all major contributions to the topic of constructionism, available to observing their local environment for the possible needs of others
the author at the time this paper was written. to address. This kind of problem finding can come in the shape of
slow looking (observation and inquiry) or interviewing others to
1.1. The problem-based science model
hear their needs (design thinking). With the PbS model, students
use slow looking to find needs, followed by authentic inquiry and
The Problem-based Science (PbS) model is simple on the sur-
face. As an applied approach to gaining literacy, learners use real innovation, then we document what we learn and share our new
problems, small and large, real tools, real materials, and sufficient knowledge. Using design as a platform for authentic inquiry makes
time to grow as learners. Addressing problems small and large is sense to learners of any age.
a form of applied technology, engineering, art, math, and science
(t.e.a.m.s.). We used the acronym t.e.a.m.s., rather than just STEM 1.3. Constructivism to constructionism in five units
or STEAM, to suggest that all of the disciplines, including their tools
and ideas, must work together in an antidisciplinary fashion for PbS is one model for how to structure for constructivism that
effective problem solving. Using this approach also signals that allows content standards to be addressed. The PbS curriculum is
every learner is valued as a polymath willing and able to connect aligned with the United States Next Generation Science Standards
the dots of seemingly disparate ideas to design solutions. The (NGSS) with a focus on NGSS ‘‘crosscutting concepts’’. In addition,
PbS model is deeply founded on Jean Piaget’s constructivism and more twenty first century learning goals can be addressed, such as
Seymour Papert’s constructionism. In effort to respect the learner, creative confidence and designing solutions for the common good.
we adopted the following driving principles for the core of PbS. In an effort to make science literacy as authentic and rewarding

Please cite this article in press as: C. Flores, Problem-based science, a constructionist approach to science literacy in middle school, International Journal of Child-Computer
Interaction (2017), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcci.2017.11.001.
C. Flores / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) – 3

for diverse learners as possible, PbS was structured using antidis-

ciplinary units or overarching themes. Themes can be applied to a
curriculum in English, math, history or science class. In Problem-
based Science, learners are exposed to specific scientific and math-
ematical content knowledge through five units: Materials, Pat-
terns, Structures, Systems and Problems. To teach science literacy
and problem solving in a makerspace, an overarching framework of
Problems (design) and Patterns (math and computational thinking)
was employed. Big ideas in engineering were addressed using three
more units, Materials (material science), Structures (physics and
engineering) and Systems (interdisciplinary science).
Overarching frameworks are so general, they can help teachers
facilitate interdisciplinary projects or units, applied to traditional
STEM topics at any age/grade level and in collaboration with the
humanities, math and the arts. Instead of specific content, such
as rocks, the human body, density, etc., the units are open-ended
enough to invite individual curiosity and passion and hone in on
skills and problems that allow students to construct their own
knowledge in specific fields or domains of science. To make a Image 1. (Battle): Not giving explicit instructions, allows for students to discover
unit more interdisciplinary, the facilitator can add a prompt to science content through a play like atmosphere. The role of teacher is to listen, and
encourage historical research, interviewing, artwork or writing. notice what questions students engage with, document those moments and reflect
with learners what they now know.

1.4. Picking problems

When children face problems they want to solve, these prob- As mentioned, some problems require the aid of another men-
lems may be within their skill set and imagination to solve, or far tor or adult in the lab besides the facilitator. Edith Ackermann
outside of their abilities to solve alone. At times learners will run predicted that ‘‘To be viable our schools will need to be ‘‘edgeless’’
into problems that they can solve quickly, with simple tools and but they cannot be place-less!’’ [7]. The role of facilitator then, is to
in relative isolation. At other times a learner will face something leverage her/his local and not so local (Skype works well) network
novel that causes her to be stuck, she needs a clear tutorial or for potential mentors to connect to learners. The facilitator does
mentor (peer or teacher) to get her to the next step. This is when not have to know all of the answers. A more exciting learning space
the tools of the internet, outside experts and antidisciplinary col- transpires when the facilitator does not have the best solution to a
laboration are required. In essence the walls of the classroom have given problem, but instead engages with learners in the pursuit of
to be removed for real problems to be addressed. new knowledge and experimentation. Knowing who to ask, where
The PbS curriculum is structured in such a way that students to ask, or how to ask a question, can be the facilitators three best
encounter a range of problems in each unit. We use levels, from one tools.
to three, to describe both the problems students chose, and those
they encounter along the way. This leveling of problems pairs well 2. Discussion
with the concepts of social constructivism and the Zone of Proximal
Development (ZPD), invented by Lev Vygotsky (see Diagram 1).
The use of a makerspace as a flexible, student owned interface
Vygotsky defines the ZPD as ’’the distance between the actual
– where the learner connects with the real world and real prob-
developmental level as determined by independent problem solving
lems in a safe zone – changed our understanding of learning and
and the level of potential development as determined through
teaching. This section describes the implications of PbS as a model
problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with
for science literacy in a makerspace in three areas, assessment of
more capable peers’’ [6]. Materials and patterns are designed to be
student learning, inclusivity in the STEM classroom, and scientific-
open-ended enough to allow choice and early (but safe) exposure
innovative mindsets and habits.
to different kinds of problems. When a student decides what he
wants to make, he may chose a task that is fraught with problems
and dead ends or he may chose to stay in a safe zone. 2.1. Assessment

1.5. The teacher’s role If only measuring success academically, PbS often promotes
students learning above ‘‘grade level’’ content in math, science, free
The teacher’s role is to facilitate, or support the students in content literacy, and reading and writing. PbS allows students as
their inquiry, and keep them working towards their goals. This young as ten to work on problems that were once reserved for
part of the role is about observation and communication. Learners college students. Through the use of portfolios and argumenta-
are asked for drawings, blueprints, explanations, and long lists tive essays, assessment of learning for a grade is possible using
of brainstorming exercises, all to get them thinking about their a problem based approach, but it should not be the end goal.
own thinking. Checking in with learners can be done through Measuring success non-academically can be done using collected
a series of ‘‘just in time’’ mini-lessons, offering clues to move anecdotal student stories and entrance/exit surveys of student
research forward, and daily agenda feedback to see and hear a attitudes around creativity, making and fixing things. If a learning
team’s progress. As students work, the teacher looks for evidence environment is willing to share focus on content with goals for
of their understanding, encourages different types of thinking, student agency and access to ideas and tools, than PbS is one con-
and supplies collegial support by working as a co-learner. The structionist model that can be used. Curriculum design geared to
facilitator is essentially cultivating a garden of learners in a rich foster learner curiosity, communication, community, agency and
learning environment designed for creativity and collaboration argument creation, is stronger when paired with a constructivist
(see Image 1). and constructionist approach to science literacy.

Please cite this article in press as: C. Flores, Problem-based science, a constructionist approach to science literacy in middle school, International Journal of Child-Computer
Interaction (2017), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcci.2017.11.001.
4 C. Flores / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) –

Diagram 1. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development model applied to the PbS Level 1–2–3 problem model.

2.2. Inclusivity of learning styles and passions there are many non-academic benefits, including gaining a sense
of agency, creative and cognitive growth, constructive autonomy,
In comparison to a one-size-fits-all teacher-driven curriculum, and building a supportive learning community.
PbS reunites students with the complexity, richness and fun of
science by putting them in the driver’s seat. Due to this level of 3. Conclusion — Implications for a middle school curriculum
individualization, PbS encourages students to gain, or retain, a
love of scientific thinking, applied math, and the creative use of Using constructionism and problem solving as a learning theory
technology, while learning through the lenses of invention, design, in a science classroom is a rich and complex approach that stands
fixing and tinkering. With open-ended problem solving, everyone to upend the long term efficacy of more traditional, 100% teacher
is a potential leader. Strong leadership skill practicing in female driven models. The efficacy of design or problem-based models
members of class was clear in both fifth and sixth grade students. In have been discussed for some time, as noted by Puntambekar and
general, more students act as experts and leaders in a makerspace Kolodner, ‘‘Design problems motivate students to learn science
setting, regardless of their success in a more traditional classroom. content, and as they engage in cycles of designing, evaluating,
and redesigning, they confront their understanding and misunder-
2.3. Mindsets and habits standing of science concepts’’ [8]. With the resurgence of these
ideas, in part due to the Maker Movement, the PbS model is finding
Problem-based Science emphasizes practicing the kinds of new fertile ground to be studied and implemented.
mindsets and habits that real engineers and scientists use, such Allowing learners to recognize opportunity in their environ-
as working collaboratively, in a self-directed manner to solve real ment to help, fix and improve is a powerfully motivating approach
problems. PbS is not designed to deliver standardized content, but to literacy in science and beyond. To see the long-term effects of
rather to structure the learning environment to encourage self- spending a year or more in a problem-based setting, longitudinal
discovery of concepts that are important to the world of engineer- surveys need to be collected on the participating students of this
ing and design. Students apply knowledge they already know and study. For example, as of the date of this paper, two students of this
gain new knowledge in the context of solving a problem. During study have gone on to extend work they began as a 6th grade PbS
this time students are practicing mindsets and habits that feel like science to found their own entrepreneurial efforts. See this video
doing real science and engineering, scaled down to the middle by now 10th grade student Alex Nickel.
school level. Simply put, students who engage with science literacy through
To better understand what students learned using a construc- the lens of inventing and solving problems, are more confident
tivist/constructionist approach to science in a makerspace, stu- and ready to see the world through what Agency by Design terms
dents were given entrance and exit surveys beginning in the Fall Maker empowerment: a sensitivity to the designed dimension of
of 2012 and ending in Spring of 2014. Table 1 is a list of mind- objects and systems, along with the inclination and capacity to
sets and habits revealed by surveys, classroom observations of shape one’s world through building, tinkering, re/designing, or
students making and learning science full time in a makerspace. hacking [9]. Thanks to modern technologies, access to content
These mindsets and habits have been organized by the benefits knowledge is at the tip of our fingers, yet most science classes
they confer upon the constructivist learner in science. In addition lack dedicated time to truly apply knowledge and curiosity about
to the individualized content knowledge a student in PbS gains, science, math, technology and engineering. Using a problem-based

Please cite this article in press as: C. Flores, Problem-based science, a constructionist approach to science literacy in middle school, International Journal of Child-Computer
Interaction (2017), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcci.2017.11.001.
C. Flores / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) – 5

Table 1
Benefits to learner using the PbS model.
Habits ‘‘I practice. . . ’’ Mindsets Benefits
• Slow looking/observation of objects or systems, inductive reasoning See complexity in materials, structures and systems
• Empathy, listening, diagnosis, interviewing See problems that can be fixed and needs that can be met
• Testing ideas and prototypes
• Measuring, calculating formulas Ask questions and Explore
• Gaining literacy from various available sources
• Learning new skills, tools, sharing ideas, showing leadership (earning Take risks
new badges)
• Setting learning goals, making agendas, making process maps
• Exercising resilience and determination Self-direct my learning and work Constructive Autonomy
• Balancing external with internal reward
• Mentoring
• Giving credit where credit is due
Be better together Community
• Sharing work
• Assertively questioning accepted ideas and offering critical feedback
to old models
• Brainstorming
Consider multiple solutions
• Improving on ideas, designs and solutions based on feedback,
research and testing
•Drawing, mapping, blueprints
Think visibly
• Making data visualizations and models to explain an idea
• Recognizing the relatedness between disparate ideas
• Analyzing data for patterns and anomalies Connect the dots Creativity & Cognition
• Forming claims and conclusions based on evidence
• Making, building, tinkering, assembling, disassembling
• Making patterns, Coding, programming, composing Think with my hands, head and heart
• Questioning the fairness of tests, the efficacy of models
• Documentation of work, self-reflection
• Giving and receiving feedback Use assessment and feedback as part of learning
• Data collection

in charge of knowledge and learning. More in line with the Reg-

gio Emilia model, facilitating science in a makerspace shifts the
traditional model of sage on the stage teaching to a collaborative
learning community model. In turn, this new dynamic creates a
more democratic, inclusive and welcoming space for STEM learn-
ing to thrive. When learners work, think, and communicate like
real scientists, especially in middle school, they are better able
to form identities that lead to life long engagement with STEM
More work of this nature needs to be focused on applied design
and problem-based work in schools in close collaboration between
practitioners (teachers, administration, students, mentors) and re-
searchers in education. Previous work of this kind has been studied
with older students, but there is room to grow in terms of research
in Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade learning environments as
well. This paper hopes to highlight the potential for using PbS
in middle school and beyond, but does not claim to be vetted or
assessed on the grounds of quantitative data, I.E. the effects of PbS
on standardized test scores.


I would like to thank the Hillbrook School for supporting this

Image 2. (Flores): Designing solutions for and with others is a fun and empowering
form of inquiry that can begin as early as three years of age. Here preschoolers share experiment and for the creation of the Hillbrook iLab. Support of
their designs for a tool based off of the prompt: Make something to help mom or risk taking in teaching and learning at the Hillbrook School allowed
dad clean up. us to observe science from a learner centered, constructionist ap-
proach. Special thanks to Professor Paulo Blikstein and the Stanford
FabLearn Fellowship for being a constant source of knowledge and
model for science literacy fosters a deeper kind of science literacy inspiration for the documentation and the pedagogical foundation
in even the youngest of learners (see Image 2). Through invention for this work. Thank you to Ilsa Dohmen and Tim Springer of HERO
and empathy, learners gain the knowledge, tools, skills, habits and inc, for helping to measure outcomes in the iLab in its first year.
mindsets of real engineers and scientists. Thank you to science teacher Brian Ravissa for filming the exit
Through the use of carefully curated open-ended prompts, interviews of the eighth grade class of 2016 after their second
problem solving can be ‘‘taught’’ to even the youngest of learners. full academic year of PbS. Thank you to Amy Atkins for her film
When there is no one right answer, there is also no one person documentation of the PbS spring hard problem of the class of 2018.

Please cite this article in press as: C. Flores, Problem-based science, a constructionist approach to science literacy in middle school, International Journal of Child-Computer
Interaction (2017), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcci.2017.11.001.
6 C. Flores / International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction ( ) –

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Please cite this article in press as: C. Flores, Problem-based science, a constructionist approach to science literacy in middle school, International Journal of Child-Computer
Interaction (2017), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcci.2017.11.001.