What high school students learn during internships in biology laboratories.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Cognitive apprenticeships (Management)
Sciences education (Vocational guidance)
High school students (Training)
Motivation in education (Methods)
Knowledge transfer (Methods)
Authors: Roth, Wolff-Michael
Van Eijck, Michiel
Hsu, Pei-Ling
Marshall, Anne
Mazumder, Asit
Pub Date: 10/01/2009
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Oct, 2009 Source Volume: 71 Source Issue: 8
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics; 280 Personnel administration Computer Subject: Company business management
Product: Product Code: E197400 Students, Senior High
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States; Canada Geographic Code: 1USA United States; 1CANA Canada
Accession Number: 246348901

Scientific talent is desperately needed to address the challenges we will face globally in the years and decades to come. Yet there is evidence from around the world that high achieving science undergraduates are becoming increasingly rare (Bohannon, 2007; Clery, 2007; Wood, 2008), though the situation for biology may, be less dire than for other sciences. Little is currently known about what might attract students into university biology programs and, from there, into specific careers. How do we increase the application rates of high school students in college and university biology (life-science) programs? In particular, how can we increase the numbers of women and aboriginals who choose scientific careers in our discipline? These are but two of the focal questions for a large interdisciplinary team that brings together natural scientists, cognitive scientists, educational and (career) counseling psychologists, and (science, mathematics, technology, literacy) educators as part of one of five centers funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada. One way in which the Pacific Center for Scientific Literacy approaches answering the focal question is by providing high school students with opportunities to experience firsthand "authentic science practice," a form of realizing that "the future of school science lies outdoors" (Slingsby, 2006). Authentic practice goes beyond simple visits, as in the British Salter's Nuffield Advanced Biology visits (e.g., Dunkerton, 2007), because students spend an extended period of time with scientists participating in the ongoing research. Although authentic science projects in schools take biology students considerably beyond what they normally do and learn (e.g., Roth & Bowen, 1995), participating in real everyday activity such as scientific research or environmental activism changes the psychology of learning all together (van Eijck & Roth, 2007).

* Authentic Science & Laboratory Internship

As its cognates "cognitive apprenticeship" and "community of practice," authentic science practice has been advocated as a means of assisting students in developing (a) usable and transferable scientific skills and knowledge (b) understanding of the sciences as epistemic (knowledge-generating) disciplines (Roth, 1995), and easing the fear of entering into science programs. Some universities adopt this approach for introducing their first- and second-year students to teach them the fundamental skills of science and the process of scientific discovery (e.g., The Center for Authentic Science Practice in Education [http://www.purdue.edu/dp/caspie/]). Our Center has been designed, in part, to provide and study high school student learning (cognitive, psycho-social, emotional, career-related) when students are provided with opportunities for internship experiences in university-based biology laboratories.

The notion of authentic practice was created after research had shown that much of what people do in their everyday lives and on the job is unaffected by the mathematics and science they learned in school (Lave, 1988; Scribner, 1984; Traweek, 1988). A recent study suggests that the number of high school courses students take in a subject correlates with their university grade point average in the same field, but not with their grade point average in other sciences (Sadler & Tai, 2007). In the wake of cognitive scientific and cognitive anthropological findings, science and mathematics educators began to understand knowledge and skills in terms of practices--the patterned actions scientists and mathematicians deploy in their working lives--rather than as procedural and declarative information stored in their heads (van Eijck & Roth, 2007). Thus, it was proposed that students of mathematics and science engage in activities that bear considerable family resemblance with the activities in which scientists, mathematicians, or historians normally are engaged. Science educators in particular began advocating experiences that take high school students out of the classroom and into settings where they could participate and experience science as everyday practice (Braund & Reiss, 2006). An extensive review of the literature shows that there is sufficient evidence that authentic science is effective in developing core skills in students, communication and interpersonal skills, i improves their attitudes toward science, and increases the likelihood that they will enter scientific careers, and develop professional integrity (Woolnough, 2000).

* Authentic Learning Experiences in Science Laboratories

Our research and development work was conducted as part of the interdisciplinary Pacific Center of Scientific Literacy, in which the first of three focal nodes is dedicated to providing authentic science experiences in the life sciences to students of all ages. For younger students, the experience generally involved two nongovernmental organizations that focus on the biology and ecology of fresh and saltwater environments (e.g., Roth et al., 2008); the Center offers interested high school students opportunities for internships in the laboratory (40+ people) of the NSERC Industrial Research Chair Program on Water and Watershed Research at the University of Victoria (Mazumder). Our Center node set as its goal an in-depth study of small numbers of students and learning contexts. In all, our first round recruited 13 students enrolled in a high school biology honors course and in a career preparation course, both taught by the same teacher. One student became ill and another dropped out, leaving us with 11 (nine female, two male) participants. As part of the career preparation course, the students spend 100 hours outside school time at out-of-school science activities. We recruited two aboriginal students who (as part of a one-year internship focusing on the health of the water bodies in their community) embarked on an internship in the same water biology laboratory.

The graduate student and technicians designed an internship plan beforehand and discussed the feasibility of the plan with the scientists. The purpose of the internship from the laboratory point of view was to demonstrate regular work in laboratories, to show the connection and application of scientific knowledge with daily life, and to provide some scientific practice for high school students. Thus, the four projects, which closely related to the students' daily lives, were: molecular tracking of sources of pathogens in water (Figure 1, left), concentrations of pharmaceuticals in wastewater, contaminants in traditional aboriginal foods (clams, mussels, oysters) and harvesting grounds (marine sediments), and biosand filter as an affordable household safe water system for rural and tribal communities in developing countries.

In groups of three or four, the high school students followed one or two science graduate students or laboratory technicians, and spent about 18 hours in the laboratory over a two-month period. Each student group, assisted by the graduate student, conducted a research project during the course of which they learned scientific knowledge and skills required for understanding the scientific projects of this laboratory. This laboratory member was the students' main contact, with whom they talked about all aspects of the work (Figure 1, right). They also participated in discussions and scientific seminars, practiced particular techniques in respective science projects in laboratories, or collected samples from the fields. The aboriginal students followed a somewhat different path in the sense that they only visited the laboratory to engage in the analyses of contaminants in traditional foods and harvesting grounds over a three-week period. The high school students were expected to give a final presentation in which they reported their work and experience to a larger audience.


* Research Methods

We studied students and classroom contexts of biology and career preparation courses, conducted a six-month video-ethnographic study of the laboratory in which students completed their internship prior to their arrival, and then documented their work in the laboratory. This included their presentations to the monthly laboratory discussion group, in which students demonstrated what they had learned and responded to critical queries from the audience. We conducted formal structured interviews prior to and following the internship experience concerning students' interests and career preferences. One of the protocols assessed the psychological construct of "possible selves," which represents individuals' ideas about what they might become and what they are afraid of becoming. Possible selves are the cognitive components of hopes, fears, goals, and threats (Markus & Nurius, 1986). To overcome possible bias in the formal interview protocols against participants' own understandings, we also included open-ended interview tasks, such as producing cards with experiences that students grouped, followed by interviews during which they explained the card content and groupings. The videotapes and interviews were transcribed and analyzed. Due to the uniqueness of the internship experience, there were no specific tests available that could have been used to assess knowledge gains. We therefore assessed student learning from the videotaped interactions in the laboratory, the laboratory members' comments about the interns, the videotaped presentations of student work at the end of the internship, and students' self reports.

To analyze the large amount of data sources collected as part of this project, we drew on a variety of analytic methods to make sense about the different dimensions involved in the internship experience. For example, we drew on discourse analysis and discursive psychology to analyze the high school students' discourse about their future careers and also the language the teacher used when inviting her students to the different experiences in authentic sciences. We used conversation analysis to analyze the interactions between the graduate students and laboratory technicians, on the one hand, and the high school student interns, on the other hand. We drew on phenomenography to describe and theorize the experiences of the different groups of participants, including the high school students, graduate students and technicians, scientists, and the high school students' biology teacher.

* Results

Our research and development work was designed to study the impact that internships in scientific laboratories has on high school students. In this section, we sketch how the internships affected cognitive outcomes, experiences and attitudes, and the career aspirations of the high school students. Surprisingly, the program also had a substantial effect on the laboratory members who closely worked with the high school students.

Cognitive Outcomes

Doing science in the real world presents severe problems for assessment because the criteria for what constitutes relevant knowledge generally are contextual, are determined by peers, and depend on the values of the relevant community of knowers (Roth & Lee, 2004). When students engage in real science and thereby make a difference in the world, they frequently find the formal school evaluation is a devaluation of the work that they had done (Posch, 1993). In the present context, therefore, we used the scientists', graduate students' and technicians' appreciations of the knowledge displayed by the high school student interns as the most appropriate form of assessment.

The triangulation of our data sources showed highly positive cognitive outcomes. The videotapes provided evidence that the students became very competent in all aspects of the experiments they conducted. One indicator of their knowledge was the fact that 63% of their queries to the supervising scientist concerning the next steps to be taken were answered affirmatively. Furthermore, students estimated that they immediately understood on average about 85% of the instructions they received from the scientists and technicians concerning laboratory procedures. As a result of the laboratory internships, the aboriginal students, too, had a better understanding of scientific knowledge and scientific methods and how these can support environmentalism.

At the end of their internship, students presented the results of their work in a formal presentation to all members of the laboratory, the interdisciplinary research team from the Center, and the high school teacher. The videotapes showed that the students had grasped the essential scientific aspects of the research in which they had been involved. During our interviews, the chief scientist, laboratory manager, and technicians all pointed out the generally unanticipated competencies that the high school students displayed. For example, they used laboratory-related scientific concepts beyond expectations of science staff and in the context of highly effective presentations. They were able to throw out words like pathogen and things like that, which I was taken a bit back, like I was, [sic] "Hey! You know that word that's impressive!" (graduate student).

* Experiences & Attitudes of High School Students

The post-internship interviews with individual 11th-grade biology students (n = 11) showed that the experience had a tremendously high positive impact. In the open-ended task, there were 46%, 40%, and 14% of positive (e.g., "eye opening experience"), neutral (e.g., "technology-intensive"), and negative (e.g., "tedious") statements of experience, respectively. The subsequent interviews revealed that 69% of the neutral statements were associated with positive experiences. These findings show that students conceived the internship as a meaningful and valuable experience in their high school lives. Our analyses revealed five salient forms of experiences. These forms of experience highlight (a) the authenticity of university science (b) the evolving connections between school and laboratory communities (c) the appreciation for the advanced knowledge and lengthy procedures in university science (d) the opportunities the internship provides for self-exploration and reflection, and (e) the comprehensive nature of science learning that occurred during the internship.

First, our students tremendously valued the rare opportunities to see real scientists at work and to discover how different real science research is from what they had learned in school or the popular media. They also came to appreciate the stereotypical nature of their previous understandings of science and laboratory practice. For example, students realized that scientists are ordinary people who do not need to be geniuses. Thus, one student said, This isn't so incredibly advanced as one might think, it doesn't require Einstein.

Second, the internship allowed the building of connections between the school and the laboratory communities. Students noted salient differences not only of physical nature (e.g., "But you feel different and almost excluded from everybody else because you're not wearing the same clothes"), but also of intellectual nature. The high school students generally appreciated the fact that they were able to connect with the laboratory community, which provided them with a valuable and meaningful experience.

Third, many high school students came to understand that laboratory science can be complex, at times even tedious, especially when compared to science laboratory activities in which they had engaged at their high school. They expressed appreciation for the fact that scientists are passionate and dedicated given the time-consuming nature of scientific research. For example, one student ... realized how much dedication it takes to do an experiment and, how many hours you have to put in a week.

Fourth, the high school students felt that the internship provided them with opportunities to explore and to reflect upon their selves and possible futures. The students noticed and appreciated how they had developed new understandings about themselves with respect to science, including their interests and future careers. They particularly highlighted a new awareness for their own personal development. We concluded that the high school students valued the internship as an important means of their professional and personal development. For example, one student reflected: It just seemed so .far away before, as if it was like, [sic] now I'm a high school student, but eventually I'll be a marine biologist, and now it's like within a couple of years I'll be on my way to being a marine biologist.

Fifth, the students themselves expressed tremendous appreciation for the amount of skill and knowledge that they had developed during this internship. This knowledge was no longer abstract, just to be memorized. Moreover, the students know why they were doing certain procedures rather than following a recipe-like approach as they had experienced in their high school science courses. For example, one student appreciatively said: Before, I guess I never really thought of, I didn't really spend the time to think of why they were doing it, or like, how important it actually was.

Internship & Career Aspirations of High School Students

Our research and development project was designed as one possible avenue by means of which the number of students in the science pipeline might be increased. On the part of the science faculty, there was a keen interest in creating experiences that would both be authentic--allowing high school students to experience science in the real way--and inviting and encouraging future enrollment. There was an expectation that the number of applicants to our university science faculty could be increased by as much as 1%/year over the lifetime of the Center. The results of our interviews suggested, however, that increasing the numbers of students in the science pipeline through internships is more complex than originally thought.

The interviews about possible selves with respect to their future careers revealed that only two students changed their ideas about career aspirations. Their talk about science as a career option changed dramatically. Whereas six of the 11 biology students who completed the internship pointed out beforehand the specialized (rather than ordinary) nature of science, only one student did so after the experience. Prior to the internship, five students emphasized their workable possibilities that come with being a scientist. This also was the case for the aboriginal students who appreciated the internship experience because it empowered their environmentalism.

On the other hand, whereas one student suggested that the scientists in the laboratory act in ways that they could see themselves acting, eight students indicated the opposite after the internship (e.g., I don't know if I would have the patience, because like [sic] you don't get results right away). The aboriginal students, too, were attracted to science prior to the internships. But the internships actually discouraged them to pursue a scientific career for very similar reasons to the biology students. The aboriginal students anticipated that doing biology specifically and science more generally as a career was of little value because the scientific method they experienced in the laboratory tends to discount the complexity of the environment as they have come to know it through their own culture. Whereas these students have come to appreciate science, the scientific way of approaching environmental problems is expected to limit their possible future actions, which they see enhanced by their aboriginal way of understanding of and caring for the environment.

Internship & Career Aspirations of Laboratory Members

The internship was primarily designed for the benefit of the high school students. However, an interesting and unexpected result from this study came from the graduate students who worked with the students. Thus, the graduate students working with the high school students had come to appreciate what is involved in learning science and assisting (teaching) someone else. As a result, these individuals developed interests in teaching science (e.g., ... so it kind of gave me a positive feeling about maybe exploring that [a biology teacher] as a career after, so I was really happy to get that chance). In fact, there was a sense among the supervising graduate students that they had come to understand better the science itself as they attempted to express it to the students new to it. Our results, in fact, support evidence from the UK that a large number of students in biology regard research as the most popular career option. That is, our project shows a potential benefit of having biology graduate students and technicians work with high school interns as a way of recruiting individuals with strong science backgrounds and experiences into science teaching.

* Discussion

In the end, the internship experiences were highly successful in that the high school students came to learn scientific knowledge and skills they did not know before. They also developed understandings of what science generally and environmental science more particularly is about. However, the internship did not make a difference in terms of making this science an attractive career for 10 out of 11 students involved. One explanation may be the fact that students already found themselves in advanced high school science courses and already had well-established ideas about what they wanted to do.

The results of this study leave us with a mixed message about the potential benefits deriving from internships for increasing enrollment in undergraduate science. On the one hand, the participating students developed great respect for the skills, attitudes, and ethics that exist in the laboratory. On the other hand, they found it more difficult for the very same reason to envision their possible future selves as being part of the laboratory environment that they experienced, despite the fact that they are science-orientated students (i.e., from a biology honors course). In part, this is based on their perceptions of the performative dimensions of science, the patience required, the monotony of having to do the same steps repeatedly, and the considerable investments (e.g., time) that have to be made to be successful. Our analyses of the interviews concerning the career goals of these students revealed several dimensions where a scientific career was less promising than careers in other fields. A large number of our students envisioned professions that would allow them to help others. Although they realized that working as scientists would contribute to the benefit of society, they also felt that by working as medical doctors, physiotherapists, or psychologists, they would be closer to those others that they were helping. A large number of students also expressed the need for lifelong learning. The routine aspects of laboratory work led them to believe that there would be fewer opportunities for lifelong learning and personal growth than in some of the other professions that they envisioned as future careers. It is unclear to us at the present moment whether a longer and more intensive internship would bring about a change in the experiences of and attitudes toward the more tedious and monotonous dimensions of laboratory science.

In the post-interviews, we sought suggestions from students' perspectives for improving internships. All students acknowledged that this internship surpassed their expectations (e.g., It exceeded my expectations, because I thought we were just to watch, but we got a lot out of it, we did everything she [the technician] did), whereas four students elaborated that more time should be allocated if at all possible (e.g., It seemed just like an overview rather than actual research, so if there was more time we probably would have gotten into more actual work and research but I don't know how much more time would be best). This finding shows positive possibilities for increasing students' ownership of practices in science internships, so that it may provide opportunities for students to see being a scientist as a whole and further establish their science identities.

The experience with the First Nations students shows that internships, to be effective recruiting mechanisms, ought to permit students to become involved actively in the research rather than being mere onlookers. Consequently, science should welcome the participation of peoples with different ways of knowing and worldviews; scientific biology needs to adapt and adjust itself as such to be more inclusive and to recruit a more diverse mixed population of students.

* Acknowledgments

This work was supported in part by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (PI W.-M. Roth). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions and recommendations expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of NSERC.


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WOLFF-MICHAEL ROTH is Lansdowne Professor of Applied Cognitive Science, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada, V8W 3N4; e-mail: mrolh@uvic. ca. MICHIEL VAN EIJCK is Assistant Professor of Science Education at Eindhoven University of Technology; e-mail: m.w.v.eijck@tue.nnl. PEI-LING HSU is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria; e-mail: phsu@uvic.ca. ANNE MARSHALL (amarshal@uvic.ca) is Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology, Department of Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies, Faculty of Education; and ASIT MAZUMDER (mazumder) is Professor of Biology, Faculty of Science, both at University of Victoria.
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