Learning Pathways or Trajectories and Time-Space Dimensions of Science Learning
The set of papers goes beyond a functional vision of learning in out-of-school time (OST) settings. They no longer offer us stories of how one might increase student's interest in science, make the science pipeline accessible, or support the development of an identity in science. Instead, the studies embed OST institutions within a complex web of practices that together constitute science learning. Learning is emergent from engagement with science in youth interest driven practices, formal and informal, free-choice and other, and may lead to educated action. Learning is understood as embedded in rich social relationships, as driven by personal interests or community concerns grounded in students' lives and communities. The students have voice and are positioned at the center of the practices. Learning is not simply emergent from practice, and owned and driven by youth interests, it is also stretched across time and space, leading to a focus on learning pathways or trajectories in science in some papers. Essentially, the papers unpack dimensions of learning that matter, moving the conversation of the field away from a discussion of how the location matters to a serious unpacking of learning itself.
The study of learning and how it unfolds, takes shape over time and across space, with the latter two understood as dynamic, entailing varying timescales and complex spatial travels, has received little research attention in the field of science education and informal science in particular. At the same time, once we move back in time and explore the history of informal education, researchers working in the sociocultural and practice theory tradition have been most vocal in putting forth rich accounts of learning across generations, stretching space and time scales in ways still rarely done in science education. Take for instance the case study of a Mayan midwife by Rogoff (2011), the cultural development of mathematical ideas among the people of Papua New Guinea by Saxe (2012), or the study of the evolving creativity of weaving across generations among the Maya of Chiapas by Greenfield (2004). These authors not only engaged with the study of learning and development much before informal science education became its own field of study, but also left us with rich accounts of dimensions of learning only extensive studies over time and across space can make evident. These three studies are also examples of theoretically well-grounded studies that explore learning as embedded in and emergent from practice, as mediated by artifacts, and as driven by action and identity work. In other words, they show us how learning is embedded in complex systems driven by local and global politics and historically marked in unique ways. They explore learning as a process of becoming and in the context of different time scales and stretched across different spatial dynamics not always tied to place but to mobility and change. At the heart of their explorations is the recognition that informal learning has to be understood as embedded in daily life or as Lave (2011) puts it, “I began to consider seriously that learning, knowledgeability, skillfulness, whatever else there might be, are always only part of ongoing social arrangements and relations” (p. 3).
This line of thought is at the base of Bricker's case study of Brenda's engagement with science. This study depicts the complex trajectory of and various STEM related social practices that Brenda engages in and that constitute her life. It shows how these practices (and resultant trajectory) affords Brenda with certain ways to position herself and to play with an identity in science. It also shows how time and spatial arrangements take shape in practice while also constituting engagement with science. All of these add up to a science-related cultural learning pathway according to Bricker, a theoretical notion Greenfield, Keller, Fuligni, and Maynard (2003) introduced in the context of two developmental trajectories—individual and collective—shaped by the broader sociocultural system.
Bricker's study also refers to the notion of persistent interest in driving engagement with science over time and across space, a concept developed further in the text by Polman in the context of students' engagement in the making of science news stories. For a long time, research on informal science struggled to account for the affective component driving engagement. Falk and Dierking (1998), brought attention to the affective components with the introduction of the term free-choice learning. With the idea of free-choice, Falk and Dierking worked to highlight the unique affective and social dimensions of it given its “free-choice, non-sequential, self-paced, and voluntary” nature (Falk, 2001, p. 7). The term free-choice learning also hinted at the need to focus on dimensions of learning rather than place of learning per se. The studies in this issue further highlight the importance of the affective and social component, considering it as a fundamental feature of learning which is about “actions, interests, and identifications” according to Polman. Yet, while the manuscripts in this special issue call attention to the dimensions of learning in dialectic with place, they do not, as a whole, explore in enough depth the complexity of persistence and affect in learning. Azevedo (2011) noted, “I have found that persistent engagement has a complex motivational structure—one that cannot be reduced to a single topic- or domain-centered essence” (p. 177). And as such, “the object of people's long-term, self-motivated, free-choice pursuits… are embedded in a fabric of activities that span several practices” (p. 176). While Bricker opted for the adoption of the term cultural learning pathways, Azevedo (2011) proposed practice theory as a descriptive frame which allows for the simultaneous exploration of engagement in multiple practices and parallel activities, leading to “a more fine-grained structure and phenomenology of interest-based persistence” (p. 178). What is stressed throughout Azevedo's account of a model rocketeer and the complexity of long-term interests, is the insistence on ways “any practice in a person's life is continuous with other practices in his/her repertoire, interest-based, [while] extended engagement in a practice (say, a hobby) must be explained in its relation to the person's larger life” (p. 179). Looking at Bricker's study from this angle, it becomes evident just how complex the reporting of such research becomes, and especially in a science journal when many practices that may help us understand Brenda's engagement with and identity in science have possibly nothing to do with science per se. The same could be said for the youth described by Birmingham and the news writers of Polman. Yet, as I see it, that is exactly what the field needs. The field needs to move beyond a focus on informal science per se to learners and learning. How are learners positioned, and how do they position themselves in the situation? What are the overall goals of engagement with science that drive participation? Rarely is science literacy the primary or end goal that drives engagement, as the papers here suggest and many of the authors I invoke noted; a state of affairs that should not be taken as threatening to the field. On the contrary, the research imaginaries in this set venture in and out of science, but by doing so, offer us rich accounts about learning and identity in science that have important implications for science education at large.
Let me briefly explore and build on these dimensions in the context of Birmingham's paper on youths' engagement with science over a substantial time period, driven by goals for civic action, community sharing, and community relevance. Birmingham notes that “educated action in science requires leveraging multiple areas of knowledge, including scientific and place-based knowledge, as well as the desire to act”, three dimensions that are interrelated and constitute engagement with science in the afterschool program. Note how time played into it in that some youth participants had been actively engaged in the program for three years. Science literacy is about “identifying relevance” in that the science being pursued has to be meaningful to its learners and their communities (Birmingham). Hence, place is presented as multidimensional and as taking on a specific form given youths' position and critical assessment of it in the context of the project and in terms of the socioscientific issue explored. Youth are positioned as experts, putting to use their scientific expertise through community action. Given such positioning of youth, they became brokers of science and were able to break down barriers between practices otherwise often disconnected—namely, science and their community.
The positioning of learners is another dimension that ISE research has much to say about. It has led to conversations about how youth-driven science could be brought into classroom practice. Birmingham's paper goes further still in that youth are positioned at the center of the whole research project which is grounded methodologically in critical ethnography and driven by the objective to document youths' educated action with them. In this manner, the paper explores issues of voice, action and transformation as the youth and the researchers collaboratively defined educated action over time through practice, and later through reflection. Yet, the manuscript is somewhat silent on how youth were involved in the analysis and write-up of the paper presented. Still, the manuscript certainly raises important points about youths' voices and positions within the project that unfolded. As noted, without youths' insider status to the community and place, they could not have become brokers and translators of science to their community. Their role as brokers was driven by a concern about and knowledge of the audience. Youth were eager to share their expertise but also viewed action on behalf of their developed expertise, something the Green Carnival afforded as a place and an event for “opening dialog” and “changing the relationship between science and the community.” As such, the manuscript offers yet another perspective of what meaningful engagement with science might look like—bringing otherwise unconnected communities and practices together. It speaks particularly well to the positioning of youth within that process as cultural brokers and active agents of such new and emergent collaborations.
That the learner's position matters is also evident in Polman's complex partnership project that drives the writing of quality science news by youth. He refers to the project as a “distributed activity system” including teachers and students or participants and instructors in an afterschool science program, science news editors, the University, and diverse science communities that youth draw on as they engage in science writing. Polman also refers to youth as brokers of science practices with which the youth come into contact. The science news stories are treated as boundary objects—objects that are both “abstract” and “concrete” and open to be appropriated by the youth while remaining transparent enough to support border crossing among practices. While powerful, the study puts into question how affinities to the health sciences could be diverted to other science practices currently little explored by youth. Accordingly, youth voice is localized in topics known and meaningful to youth. To support youths' venturing into science terrain new to them is yet a challenge the project has to live up to.
What unifies the studies is the fact that they have taken to task what Vygotsky (1997) proposed years ago, as he alluded to the dialectic between formal and informal learning and referred to the importance of grounding the study of education in life. In his words,
Ultimately, only life educates, and the deeper that life, the real world, burrows into the school, the more dynamic and the more robust will be the educational process. That the school has been locked away and walled in as if by a tall fence from life itself has been its greatest failing. Education is just as meaningless outside the real world as is a fire without oxygen, or as is breathing in a vacuum. The teacher's educational work, therefore, must be inevitably connected with his (or her) creative, social, and life work (p. 345).
The set of papers certainly take us beyond such a place-based vision of science literacy and remind us that science teaching and learning entails travel among practices, both formal and informal which form a dialectic of new emergent ways of thinking about and being in science over time, grounded in indigenous and scientific ways of knowing. Yet, the papers also bring to the task many new concepts and dimensions that I tried to briefly highlight while they would certainly deserve much more thorough treatment.
Partnerships, Collaborations, Boundary Encounters, and Boundary Objects
The articles by Feinstein, Kisiel, and Polman speak to issues of partnerships and collaborations among OST settings and diverse communities and practices in different ways. Yet, collaborations among diverse communities of practice are essentially touched upon by all articles given the notion of informal science learning as embedded within a complex ecology of practices and part of repertoires of practice and life. Grounding interactions across practices in a relational perspective and using a communities of practice framework, Kisiel explores two models, the overlapping communities model and the emergence of a boundary practice when two communities interact driven by a clear common goal, while adhering to their local unique community identity and practice. Kisiel then moves on to a discussion of boundary encounters and boundary activities such as a “field trip, outreach, [or] teacher workshop”. Important is the distinction here between boundary encounters and boundary objects, the latter being central to Polman's paper. For Kisiel, building on Wenger's practice theory, boundary encounters entail encounters of different parties or practices, in the case of the manuscript, between expert teachers and ISEI educators. Through the interaction, boundary practices may emerge if teachers and ISEI educators manage to develop sustained engagements and relationships driven by a shared goal (Wenger, 1998). Kisiel also briefly discusses the position of some teachers as “brokers at the boundary” who get other teachers into participating in fieldtrips or become stigmatized by other teachers less eager and engaged in field trips. Theoretical notions of boundaries that are both points of demarcation while also points of growth in that “participation and reification can also create continuities across boundaries” (Wenger, 1998, p. 104) are ideas extremely promising to work with in the context of understanding and mediating collaborations and partnerships among formal and informal ISE institutions and practices. In fact, Star and Griesemer (1989) introduced and theorized the notion of boundary objects in the context of a theoretically grounded analysis of the historical development of the natural history research museum, an institution that implied many diverse actors and that had to respond to many contextually grounded changes over time. Boundary objects, being “both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across settings” are key to understand the successful evolution of the history museum over time in their paper (Star & Griesemer, 1989, p. 393). What is most important, is the kind of collective work the creation of boundary objects entail in that these “representations or inscriptions, contain at every stage the traces of multiple viewpoints, translations and incomplete battles” (p. 413), and as such, do not imply coercion but are supportive of conflicting sets of concerns and the coming together of diverse social worlds and meanings. That dimension made possible Polman's complex partnership among diverse institutions since the news stories were the shared objects that unified the partners who held on to their own diverse identities and commitments. It is also that kind of a coming together of social worlds that Feinstein hints at in terms of moves towards equitable practices in museums that are urgently needed.
Diversity, Equity, and Position of Research and Researcher
Possibly due to powerful stories of engagement with science in OST settings as those woven together in the text by Birmingham, Bricker, and Polman, informal science education has become tagged as an effective outreach mechanism. It is viewed as a critical mechanism for offering diverse learners quality science education, for opening up the science pipeline, and for “bring[ing] science to a broader audience” (Feinstein). What this discourse tends to lack is a much more thorough engagement with current issues of diversity and equity. We live in an era marked by globalization, which amplifies racial/ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity while also challenging long-held assumptions about culture as fixed entities that can be captured by simple demographic variables and manipulation of it. Diversity and equity concerns also speak to bringing science to a larger audience, including learners of all ages, and to people with disabilities. Yet, what the broader discourse in the field of ISE fails to deeply account for is the need to go beyond a discourse on access and vision of equity as equality. What is needed is a much more nuanced approach that ensures the physical, cognitive, and social inclusion of all learners in science activities, while also providing opportunities for everybody to fully participate in the management and policy work behind such activities. Diversity and equity are social constructs and their representations need to be unpacked in the context of a diverse set of local and global sociocultural and systemic factors. Commonly used catchwords such as accessibility, empowerment and agency need unpacking and critically examined in terms of their roots and meaning today, and the degree to which they frequently stand in and diverge the discourse away from others centering on race and power; discourses that have historically been absent from informal learning research (Nasir, 2012). This is where the manuscripts in this special issue may make their most important contributions.
Take for example, the manuscript by Feinstein that fundamentally questions how equity is constructed in practice at informal science education centers. At the institutional level, Feinstein's study speaks to the enduring prevalence of a client logic among museums and science centers that separates the institutions and staff from the communities they serve, yet points to some examples of a cooperative logic implying a sense of community among staff and customers. Interestingly, Feinstein found a mix of both logics at work in most settings they sampled. They were apparent in the ways museums tried to improve staff diversity, lured diverse visitors to the museums, offered opportunities to co-design exhibits, and conducted outreach projects. Feinstein argues against a move toward an exclusive implementation of a cooperative logic given potential positive dimensions attached to a client logic driven ISL institution, leaving the reader with a sense that we may need to ask when either logic is most cost-effective instead of becoming exclusively attached to one or the other. This is where Feinstein's paper ties in with my earlier discussion of a kind of partnership model a theoretical grounding in boundaries and boundary objects supports. Within the latter framing, nothing has to be given up by any of the participating communities or practices. Through socially constructed objects and meanings, true collaborations can be ensured. That theoretical model is certainly worth much more consideration by the field and may facilitate a move towards a new and equity driven business model for museums and other cultural institutions, different from the ones sampled by Feinstein.
Feinstein's paper also raises important issues about voice and the positioning of the authors of current ISE research. Feinstein makes an important and careful distinction between ISE research by academics, which has expanded at an almost alarming rate, and the rich data-base of reports and evaluations of program design and exhibits by practitioners, with the latter being too often ignored by the former. It is a tension the ISE field is struggling with and that various recent publications and institutional organizations have attempted to break down with mixed results (Ash, Rahm, & Melber, 2012; informal.science.org, etc.). How can we bring audience research studies together with scientific ones from academics? How can we bring research on OST settings and youth development together with ISE in afterschool and youth programs? How can we, in the latter context, bring ISE grassroots work together with research by academics? These questions should drive how the field considers issues of voice, positionality, and equity in the future.
Having raised equity issues at the institutional level in the context of Feinstein's paper, I now turn to how equity issues might be addressed at a more individual level, building on Birmingham's paper. It makes the case for a new outcome of science learning grounded in critical literacy, namely “science literacy for democratic participation.” In doing so, it pushes the conversation about equity in science beyond access towards a critical examination of what science education should aim for and what its outcome should entail and according to whom and for whom. The paper describes an ISE practice that was purposefully designed to engage youth in a science practice that went well beyond “student's conformity to authoritative knowledge and scientific discourse that are relevant to research scientists” (Lee & Roth, 2003, cited in Birmingham). It offered youth with opportunities to explore socioscientific issues of importance to their communities and place. Scientific ways of knowing next to place based, cultural and community ways of knowing were mobilized and put to use. It made science education relevant in the eyes of the learners. As such, it led to an equity driven practice in which the knowledge being mobilized was no longer imposed on learners but socially constructed and tied locally to place, while also mobilized and shared for the good of the community, leading to and encouraging democratic citizenship. “Building STEM expertise,” “Building STEM citizenship,” and “Educating others” became the three facets of the approach that were brought alive in the rich descriptions of the green carnival and its focus on “energy efficiency and technological advancement” through the “Light Bulb Efficiency Exhibit” or a focus on “renewable energy” through an exploration of the “LEED certification process,” to give two examples. The examples make evident locally meaningful engagement with science that are powerful globally in that such place-based science led to an equity driven science practice locally, yet offers a model that could be more globally developed and picked up elsewhere once adapted to its locality. As suggested, not just anything about green energy was worth presenting, it had to be adapted to be locally “attractive” to the public. Youth focused on dimensions tied to environmental health of the local community while they also took into consideration local economic issues, focusing on the reduction of the “monthly energy bills,” thereby making science accessible to their larger community. Equity issues were not solely addressed here in terms of the science learners and in offering them with forms of participation they could relate to and that were meaningful and empowering to them, but also in terms of the audience and consumers of science who could profit from a science expertise that was tied to their lives. The paper offers a much needed critical assessment of the many facets of an equity driven science education with which the ISE field needs to engage with much more—the what, how and for whom in science—dimensions, that once taken seriously, can lead to engaging and transformative practices not only for the learners but also their communities.
Once we examine where the field stands through a more complex lens on diversity and equity, and take a critical lens or stance to the many issues the papers raise, it becomes evident rather quickly that much work remains to be done. It also begs the question about the kinds of theoretical frameworks and methodological tools that are mobilized within the field. More attention needs to be paid to the what and how of research, and the kinds of research methodologies and research questions that drive the field. Whose questions drive the research, who is doing the research, and with whom or how? None of the authors in this set of papers critically explored their own positionality in their research endeavor and how that might have influenced the story that unfolded. We might ask, was Brenda really that eager to engage with science or was she primarily concerned with performing science for the researchers? One may wonder in the case of the Polman study about who is doing the writing and whose voice is eventually conveyed in the polished text that is published? Once we take seriously that research entails a dialogue between the researcher and the researched, what do the stories mean that are being told across this set of papers? Is a practice that centers on educated action in science as described by Birmingham about science or should it count for youth activism? What kind of a science practice is proposed in each paper, what kinds of navigations among worlds of sciences are taken for granted or are being called for? And what are the implications for informal science learning and teaching once understood in the context of its underlying historical, political, economic, and cultural processes? What kind of a theoretical and methodological framework is needed to get at these questions? Is the kind of critical ethnography pursued by Birmingham always necessary or are other ways of grounding and pursuing the studies possible?