Learning through interaction and embodied practice in a scientific laboratory

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2012-05

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Mey, Inger Hansen, 1941-

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Abstract

This study purports to explore how apprentices in microbiology, through interaction and multimodal activities, acquire the knowledge and skills that are necessary for doing scientific experiments. It aims to examine the ways novices learn to scrutinize and discuss the data under investigation, how experts communicate scientific knowledge about microbes to novices, and how experts and novices together create new scientific knowledge during the apprenticeship. Furthermore, this study aims at explaining the various ways narratives contribute to the socialization of the apprentice into the workplace and the scientific field, and how stories help retain knowledge, gained in one situation, to be used in other contexts and situations. To achieve this aim, I videotaped daily activities in a small microbiology lab, focusing on detailed observations of experts and novices as they engaged in teaching and learning. I was especially interested in what kinds of innovative symbolic communication resources would be invoked during such educational activities. In addition, I collected data pertaining to how the apprentice was socialized into this particular community of practice. I applied a ‘situated learning’ approach to the analysis of the instructional data, as well as discourse analytic and social semiotic methods of analyzing verbal and nonverbal, embodied interaction. I found that researchers, by using embodied and semiotic resources, created moments of shared participation between themselves and their scientific objects. Likewise I found that gestures shaped objects and concepts, and brought these into an intersubjective space where researchers, tools, instruments, and concepts interacted in a collaborative architecture. I named the specific literacy prevalent in scientific experimentation (reading and understanding graphs, diagrams, pictures, etc.) as ‘science literacy’, to distinguish it from the term ‘scientific literacy’, a general understanding of popularized scientific topics. Blurred boundaries were discovered between the living organisms and their semiotic representations whenever the expert and the novice referred to the living organisms in their discussions concerning graphs and diagrams. The researchers changed their terminology, depending on the bacteria changing from animate to inanimate status. Finally, I discovered the significance of contextual tellability in narratives functioning both as introduction to the workplace and as memory devices.

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