Learning Sciences doctoral student Izabel Duarte Olson won an award for best student paper at the American Education Research Association annual meeting. Olson’s paper explores how people’s social experiences affect their thinking about complex phenomena.
Olson received the 2013 Best Student Paper Award from the Advanced Technologies for Learning and Learning Sciences special interest groups on April 29. Her winning paper was entitled “’It’s like an Epidemic, It Catches On…’: Community Knowledge of Everyday Complex Phenomena.”
“There is a long-standing literature saying that thinking about complex systems is counterintuitive and difficult for students. However, during my ethnographic work in the Brazilian favelas — the low-income communities in Rio de Janeiro — I noticed that people not only navigated complexity very well, but they also were conversant with complex topics that were relevant to their lives,” says Olson. She decided to delve more deeply into how social groups think about the complex topic of inequality and status attainment.
By interviewing both favela dwellers and middle-class citizens, she tested the idea that people learn from their everyday experiences about complex phenomena. “To what extent do their social experiences shape their cognition of economic inequality?” Olson asks. She found major differences in the way these two groups looked at economic inequality.
While middle-class citizens took a more distant macro view, favela dwellers “thought like an agent in the system, immersing themselves in their own social experience and focusing on social networks and capital to reason through a complex phenomenon,” she says. Since favela dwellers navigate two social worlds, one of wealth and another of poverty, and most middle-class people navigate only one, “this uneven navigation through the social worlds” could help explain the groups’ different explanations for inequality.
Olson’s research can aid in understanding how people think about phenomena productively, leading to the design of learning environments that build on everyday knowledge. Her research extends the work of SESP professor Uri Wilensky by linking people's knowledge of complex systems to their social experiences and cultural practices.
Olson, who studies the relationship between cognition and culture, has received other awards and recognitions for her work. In addition to the AERA award, in 2013 she received the Robert J. Menges Memorial Award for Student Development and the Society for Anthropological Sciences Best Student Paper. In 2012, she received the Advanced Cognitive Science Fellowship and the Outstanding Student Poster Award at the Society for Cross Cultural Research Conference. In 2011 she received travel grants from The Graduate School and SESP as well as a University Fellowship. Her adviser is professor Douglas Medin.