Crossing colleges: the impact of an engineering design collaboration on early childhood teacher candidate development


Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 41:4, 384-402

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this case study, researchers examined the collaborative process that occurred when early childhood teacher candidates engaged in project-based learning (PBL) to design interactive exhibits to be used in an informal learning setting for children ages three to eight.
The research presents findings from 52 early childhood teacher candidates who participated in the collaborative project.

Design project description
The collaborative design project paired early childhood teacher candidates with engineering design students to design an interactive exhibit for an informal learning space to be installed within the region.
The instructional goals of the collaborative project were threefold:
1) Utilize the content expertise of both majors for a project-based learning task with potential for community impact,
2) Develop collaborative skills that are necessary in a professional setting, and,
3) Increase professional identity by demonstrating to students the value and depth of their content knowledge.
The exhibit design created by each team needed to provide an interactive learning experience for children ages 3–8 that was open-ended, interdisciplinary, safe, developmentally appropriate, and feasible for construction.
Design teams consisted of a minimum of two students from each major, with all but two groups having four members.
Early childhood candidates completed the project as part of their Early Childhood Social Studies Methods Course, for which civic engagement and democratic discourse were course objectives.
The project represented approximately 20% of the semester grade for early childhood candidates and 40% for engineering students.
A detailed rubric was used to evaluate the work of the early childhood candidates.

The two-year study employed case study methodology for data collection.
Throughout data analysis, care for thoughtful triangulation of data was employed (Stake, 1995).
The research project was guided by the following questions:
1) In what ways were the finished design products impacted by early childhood candidates’ contributions?;
2) What challenges impeded the design process?;
3) What facilitating factors influenced the success of the project?; and,
4) How was the professional identity of the early childhood candidates impacted by the project?

The research described in this manuscript presents findings from 52 early childhood candidates who participated in the research study (n = 52).
As part of their major, early childhood candidates receive teaching licensure for age 3 to grade 3.
All participants were in their junior year of study, during which they spend 500 hours (two full days/week for an entire academic year) in one K-3 school.

Data collection
Data collection occurred during fall semester during two consecutive academic years.
Observations, formal interviews, artifact collection, and student self/peer reviews were utilized to collect data.
The researchers observed participants during all group meetings and took detailed field notes during all observations.
The researchers met immediately after observations to complete a peer review/debriefing session (Hallgren, 2012).
Formal interviews were completed with approximately half of all participants during each year of data collection.
Interviews were voluntary and were conducted until data saturation occurred. Artifacts were collected during each of the four group meetings and provided a valuable source for data triangulation.

Data analysis
Utilizing case study methodology (Creswell, 1998; Patton, 2015; Stake, 1995; Yin, 2002), data were organized by the type of data collection method. Reading of the data happened continuously during the data collection period and after, and an organized note-taking method was utilized to further organization. Coding of qualitative data was used for transcribed formal interviews, observation notes, self and peer reviews, and relevant artifacts (Patton, 2015).

Findings and discussion
The findings of this case study reveal that early childhood candidates influenced the PBL task in many ways and found the project-based learning (PBL) experience to be beneficial to their development as teachers.
Teacher candidates also reported that the opportunity to work with partners outside their college through interdisciplinary PBL was particularly valuable.
Findings revealed that while engaging in PBL, participants experienced challenges related to anxiety, finding time to meet, navigating group dynamics, and stress related to grading.
The teacher candidates experienced tensions during the PBL experience in this study, but these challenges also led to success in the project, contributing in both ways to the further development of their professional identities.
Teacher candidates identified several facilitating factors that influenced the success of the project, including the meeting structure, a partnership an informal learning organization, and a clear grading policy.
Early childhood candidates also reported multiple times that the clinical model of teacher preparation helped them be successful in the PBL design task.
Teacher candidates reported that their clinical experiences allowed them to have a better understanding of developmentally appropriate practices.
Teacher candidates pointed to the strong mentoring they receive as part of their clinical experiences, citing a connection to mentoring and their ability to collaborate effectively during the PBL design task.
As collaborative partnerships are an essential part of the mentoring and co-teaching that accompanies clinically-based teacher preparation programming (AACTE, 2018; NCATE, 2010), this case study provides further research support for the clinical model of teacher preparation.
As a result of the PBL collaboration, teacher candidates also indicated that they would be more comfortable engaging in collaborative endeavors in the future, for example with students’ parents/caregivers.
While increasing comfort in collaborating with families and communities was not an original goal of the PBL experience presented in this case study, the finding identifies future research possibilities about the benefits of interdisciplinary PBL in early childhood teacher preparation.
Of particular importance, teacher candidates reported prior experiences where their major was demeaned by other majors across campus but reported that the PBL experience helped them to feel more confident in their knowledge of early childhood education and increased their feelings of pride and professional identity within the field.
In this study, teacher candidates acknowledged the dismissive treatment they often receive from others about their majors but experienced increased pride in their own knowledge and identity as early childhood educators.
This study provides evidence for the efficacy of interdisciplinary PBL in teacher preparation programs and informs what is known about teacher candidates’ experiences as young professionals.

Teacher preparation programs must prepare teacher candidates to meet the needs of diverse learners and to collaborate across varied settings.
While instructors may feel apprehensive or encounter challenges when developing learning experiences that cross colleges, findings from this study indicate that doing so offers multiple benefits for teacher candidates.
Given the collaborative and integrated nature of early childhood education, it is essential that teacher candidates have experience navigating authentic collaborative partnerships and opportunities for developing positive professional identities.
This research study addresses these issues and suggests an innovative collaborative approach for improving early childhood teacher preparation.

American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). (2018). A pivot toward clinical practice, its lexicon, and the renewal of educator preparation: A report of the AACTE Clinical Practice Commission. Retrieved from
Creswell, J. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hallgren, K. A. (2012). Computing inter-rater reliability for observational data: An overview and tutorial. Tutorials in Quantitative Methods for Psychology, 8, 23–34. doi:10.20982/tqmp.08.1. p023
National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). (2010). Transforming teacher education through clinical practice: A national strategy to prepare effective teachers. Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation and Partnerships for Improved Student Learning. Retrieved from
Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). London, UK: Sage.
Stake, R. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Yin, R. K. (2002). Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Updated: May. 13, 2021