A new study has taken a closer look at whether Hot Wheels cars could be used to help teach physics to fourth graders.
The $784,000 study was performed by Julie Marsh, a researcher at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education, and Morgan Polikoff, a researcher and USC assistant professor who is also affiliated with the Mattel Children's Foundation. The pair observed students in 49 classrooms located in Southern California who used a curriculum called Speedometry.
According to the results, students in classrooms that used the Speedometry curriculum scored, on average, 1.34 points higher on a 20-question math and science quiz administered last fall than their peers who were not exposed to the curriculum. A third-party company was used to aid in the formulation and administration of the evaluation, reports Nicholas Zazulia for US News.
Additional results suggest that the car-and-track toys could help decrease negative feelings students hold toward science and math, while at the same time helping to increase the confidence teachers have in themselves to discuss scientific inquiry with their students. This last portion is especially important due to the Next Generation Science Standards that were implemented in a number of states over the last few years.
"Elementary teachers don't really teach much science," says Polikoff. "Even though there are science standards, there wasn't much science teaching" under the Common Core State Standards before the Next Generation Science Standards were put in place.
Developed in 2015, the Speedometry curriculum takes place over the course of two weeks, with lesson plans requiring 45 minutes of class time per day. Teachers focus on topics such as kinetic and potential energy.
Participating classrooms receive a Speedometry kit that comes with cars, tracks, and gravity clamps, in addition to lesson plans that can be downloaded from the website. Teachers also have access to videos and instructions that help train them in how best to teach each lesson. Researchers believed that using videos would be sustainable on a large scale because it would be difficult to offer a personal explanation to each teacher.
Marsh said that the goal of the program is to boost teachers' confidence in their ability to teach science. However, she added that a short-term decrease in confidence is normal when a new curriculum is introduced.
"To me, that's very significant, because we know that many elementary-school teachers are quite intimidated by teaching math and science," Marsh says.
Researchers also looked at gender roles when developing the curriculum. Because Hot Wheels are typically considered to be toys that boys play with more often than girls, researchers considered the idea that the curriculum might help to increase boys' learning but not girls', which is already an issue in STEM learning. However, Polikoff said the issue never came up during preliminary testing or the study itself, nor were there any differences when observing students with disabilities or English learners:
Polikoff adds, though, that "teachers, when we surveyed them, tended to think that the curriculum was more effective for boys than girls, but that's not what we found on any of our outcome measures."