Trajectories of legitimate peripheral participation : ethnographic case studies of learning ecology




Bowen, Gervase Michael Reynolds

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Current reform documents in education call for elementary and high school students to engage in “authentic” scientific practices. In the past several years a number of authors have suggested that science education research and curriculum development could benefit from insights gained by research in the social studies of science that documents and theorizes science as it is actually done. Yet, although practices of laboratory science are well understood and provide a foundation from which educational practices could be drawn, little is known about the practices of the science disciplines which deal with field research and how people are enculturated into those practices. This dissertation is constituted by a series of research papers on different (although inter-related) topics, in which I examine the enculturation into the practices of field ecology and the world-view that is associated with that enculturation. To better understand the practices of field ecology and how they develop, I conducted several projects: (i) a video ethnography of a second-year university ecology class and observations on research experiences undergraduates experience; (ii) ethnographic research with ecologists conducting field research; (iii) observations of graduate student and professional ecologists as they participated in conferences, engaged in interaction in their laboratory and social settings, and presented/discussed their findings in various settings; (iv) interviews with graduate student and professional ecologists discussing their field research experiences; (v) videotaped interviews with practicing researchers and under/graduate science and non-science students as they interpreted various ecology-related inscriptions; (vi) an analysis of the inscriptions and textual information present in the various texts (textbooks and journals) used to teach students about ecology; and, (vii) observations of elementary school students engaged in practices congruent with those of field ecologists. Collectively, these studies suggest that the way in which undergraduate students are taught about disciplines such as ecology which involve field research—generally lectures and structured laboratory research investigations—does not well prepare them to enact the practices common to research in the discipline such as designing and conducting research projects, summarizing and interpreting data in graphs, and making scientific knowledge claims. In addition, the formal texts (textbooks, lectures, and journal articles) used to enculturate students into disciplinary concerns and practices develop in students a reductionist, anthropocentric view of nature as opposed to the holisitic view which ecology ostensibly represents. Story-telling within the community was revealed as an important mechanism by which field research methods, almost unmentioned in the formal texts of the discipline, are learned and the community of ecologists established and maintained. These findings have implications for how we prepare student teachers to teach science, for merely encouraging them to take undergraduate science courses will develop attitudes about nature and approaches to teaching which are perhaps undesirable. On the basis of the study reported, I conclude that both teacher education and science curricula would be best served by engaging participants (either student teachers or public school students) in long-term research projects whose conclusions they can present and defend to peers and instructors in their education program. This would need to be coupled with a critically reflective component which encouraged these participants to examine the assumptions and implicit judgements made in the conduct of their work. By engaging in such a process students will learn about scientific practices and concepts as well as about the socially-mediated nature of scientific communities and knowledge.



Ethnology, Study and teaching, Ecology