Learning Sciences PhD Students Expand Understanding of Science Learning

Learning Sciences PhD Students Expand Understanding of Science Learning

Students in the Learning Sciences PhD program are breaking new ground as they study science learning in multiple contexts — families, the media, video games, after-school programs, classrooms and more. Their novel research builds understanding of the learning process and the design of innovative learning environments.

For example, doctoral student Pryce Davis shines a new light on science learning as he tracks the process of science communication. He traces the learning that happens as science information travels from scientists to journalists to the average person reading science news.

“If we want to understand how people make sense of science in their lives, we must also be able to understand the process of science communication that ultimately results in the messages people receive,” he says. As a learning scientist, he tries to pin down how people construct knowledge and understanding at each step along the way.

family gardening

In a context close to home, Jessica Umphress and Danielle Keifert study how families communicate about science. Umphress examines how parents interact with their children about knowledge while they garden, cook, hike, play games or do other everyday activities.

Children come to the classroom primed with the knowledge practices they’ve learned at home, says Umphress. “Understanding children’s experiences with epistemological practices in their everyday lives contributes not only to our basic understanding of children’s intellectual development and everyday learning processes, but it can help us scaffold their experience with those practices in science classrooms.”

Keifert too examines the science-related practices of families, and her research crosses over to the classroom too. Her “cross-context and developmental video ethnography” observes young children’s inquiry practices as they transfer from home to school, and she has been able to compare children at four-year intervals. As she focuses on family inquiry practices and how they unfold, he aim is to discover resources for STEM learning.

Informal programs
Lauren Penney seeks to discover how to get students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “We don’t know a lot about what gets kids interested in STEM … How can we pull them in?” she asks. To find an answer, she studies Northwestern’s self-directed STEM program for teens called FUSE, which incorporates such appealing cutting-edge activities as robotics, electronics, phone app development and sound mixing. Observing teens in the program, she especially focuses on the activities the students choose and why. 

Nathan Holbert racing car game

Video games
For today’s children, science and learning often intersect over video games. Doctoral candidate Nathan Holbert built his own video games to explore how players think about the science they encounter in video games.

“My goal was to explore techniques for designing video games that would both encourage players to use their intuitions about scientific phenomena when engaged in game play as well as to see these play experiences as relevant when thinking and reasoning outside of the game,” Holbert says. Games such as his car racing game and block-throwing simulation provide “powerful opportunities to construct interesting objects and experiences” and include “representations that bridge the game and more formal domains.” 

Changing classrooms


Learning Sciences students such as Elizabeth Dyer bring innovation to the classroom setting as well. As part of a new approach to teacher training, she tries to better understand how to help teachers develop a strong focus on substantive student thinking by having the teachers collect video and analyze video." She says, "Having high-quality science teachers that are attentive and responsive to the substance in students' thinking is crucial if we want to get students to be able to do scientific practices. ... However, the way science has been taught for so long doesn't support that kind of student learning, which means that there's a lot of work to be done in helping teachers learn how to teach in these new ways.

Abe Lo too seeks to help teachers change science education so that kids engage more meaningfully in authentic scientific practices. He devises ways to help teachers develop new practices, such as giving kids responsibility for constructing knowledge and developing scientific explanations. Lo, whose ultimate goal is to achieve richer student understanding of science, wants to “transform the paradigm that teachers use.” 

Digital tools
Learning science students understand how effective tools foster science learning, and Aditi Wagh’s goal is to “use technology in innovative ways that makes science accessible to kids.” She has designed a unique programming environment for middle school students to build models about evolution, a topic that students often find difficult to understand. Now she is following up by researching how effective the students’ models are compared with other tools.

Learning Sciences
These doctoral students’ innovative projects are possible because of the interdisciplinary Learning Sciences program’s expert faculty and unique opportunities. “Where else but SESP could I have access to such an incredible array of top-notch opportunities and experts in their fields, all under one umbrella? Without this diversity of voices and support, it would have been incredibly hard to put together my research,” says Umphress. Penney sees SESP as unique for integrating many types of research data, both quantitative and qualitative.

In addition, Learning Sciences students consistently comment on the strong SESP community, which offers them not only support but also important feedback. “There’s a sense of community here,” says Keifert, who describes SESP as having core value of collaboration. “Being in a community that is at the cutting edge of learning sciences provides insight into your work,” notes Wagh.

Lo attributes the improvements that the Learning Sciences program makes in education to the program’s core pillars — cognition, culture and design. The interdisciplinary, research-based field of learning sciences originated at Northwestern University, where the School of Education and Social Policy started the first learning sciences program in the world to help people develop the skills needed for an increasingly complex world.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 3/7/17