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Study examines barriers to student learning

January 06, 2010

We’ve been bombarded with news about the economic crisis, global warming and threat of a flu pandemic. But how much do citizens really know about these issues, all emergent phenomena?

Less than you might think. Skilled scientists have long understood complex systems such as emergent phenomena, which are like tapestries woven unknowingly as a result of collective human action, but not human design. Emergent phenomena also exist throughout nature, as large-scale patterns not created by a single event. The underlying concept, though, can baffle laypeople at a time when emergent phenomena in the environment, economy and global health are shaping our world and calling for wise action.

“It’s an open frontier," said Sarah Brem, an associate professor with the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education. "We don’t have a lot of tools for helping people understand science better.”

Brem is leading a new National Science Foundation-funded project whose goal is to develop an assessment instrument to measure people’s grasp of emergence as well as identify barriers to understanding. She is joined by co-principal investigator Michelene Chi, a professor with the Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education. The project is being supported by a three-year grant in the Empirical Research, Emerging Research Strand of NSF, in the amount of $674,180.

"A Unified, Cross-Domain Approach to Studying Learner Understanding of Emergence” will investigate the general properties that students must understand in learning about emergent systems. Using a series of visualizations and face-to-face interviews, Brem and Chi will develop a concept inventory that will define and measure students’ learning. The team chose emergence examples from the fields of geology (erosion), chemistry (the relationship of temperature and pressure in gases), natural selection (the evolution of mimetic abilities) and psychology (detecting and avoiding strangers) as contexts to conduct their research.

“Our goal is to create a template to measure how well a person understood an emergent phenomena, and if they didn’t understand it, what specific problems they might be having,” Brem said.

Educators could use this new tool to utilize teachable moments or develop interventions to aid a student’s understanding. But Brem also envisions the new tool at work in museums.

“Emergent systems have been getting an increasing amount of interest in the fields of cognitive science and educational research because they underlie many important social issues such as urban planning, environmental concerns and disease,” Brem said. “Emergence introduces concepts that challenge us to look for new ways to understand, explain and shape the world, concepts so counterintuitive and outside our expectations that extensive training is required to master them.”

To illustrate just how challenging it can be to grasp emergent systems, Brem cites the everyday example of a traffic jam.

“As individuals we tend to oversimplify things," Brem said. "Our innate tendency is to look for the one thing that causes a particular phenomenon. When we get frustrated in a traffic jam, we tend to think of the one driver, the one accident, the one mistake that’s causing it when, in fact, it might be a hundred people.”

The new project builds upon a strong foundation of earlier funded research conducted by Brem and Chi.

Brem was the principal investigator of an NSF-funded project titled “Facing the Challenges of Learning and Teaching about Evolution: A Synthesis.” She was one of 11 NSF-funded researchers invited by the prestigious organization in February to present findings of her study synthesizing what we know from cognitive scientists, science educators, biologists and teachers about the challenges of learning about and teaching evolution.

“Evolutionary biology is basically one big emergent system,” Brem said. “A lot of the ideas we will be testing came out of that work.”

Chi, who received her doctorate in cognitive and developmental psychology from the Carnegie-Mellon University, joined the Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education in August 2008 after working three decades at the University of Pittsburgh. Here, one of her projects was to try to understand why deeply held misconceptions inhibit children’s ability to learn about science processes that are taught in school and have emergent-like qualities – such as diffusion, heat transfer, and natural selection and how these misconceptions can be overcome.

Lori Baker
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education