An investigation of the impact of culture and experience on reasoning about complex ecological phenomena among students from diverse backgrounds

Project: Research project

Project Details


Overview. This “Research and Service to Practice” project aims to (1) deepen our fundamental knowledge of ecosystems cognition, (2) develop innovative practices and approaches in informal learning environments to support learning about complexity and ecological systems, a critical 21st century skill, and (3) broaden participation and close opportunity gaps for under-represented groups in STEM fields learning about complex ecological systems. Ecosystems are seen as a core disciplinary idea of the life sciences, but ecosystems are complex and developing effective approaches to ecosystems cognition demands research that addresses the contribution of culture and informal learning to understanding complexity. The socio-scientific issues that all citizens must navigate increasingly demand complex systems reasoning. Numerous scholars have suggested that a bias towards simple cause-effect reasoning undermines students’ ability to grasp nonlinearities, feedback processes, and indirect relations, it may be that this reflects a particular cultural model rather than a universal bias. Over the past decade our research team has conducted a series of converging studies with Native American and European American children and adults that reveal consistent patterns of cultural differences in epistemologies for conceptualizing the natural world. The present proposal will take our work to a deeper analytic level by systematically examining the role of culture in ecological cognition and the complex systems reasoning that is intrinsic to understanding ecosystem dynamics. The project will consist of three panels of research. Panel 1 incorporates field-based experiences across diverse ecosystems to analyze markers of complex systems reasoning in everyday learning contexts. Panel 2 uses cognitive experiments to assess complexity reasoning associated with ecological agents, food webs and their disruption, ecosystem dynamics over time, and climate change. Panel 3 leverages these findings in iterative design research to develop pedagogies to foster ecosystem cognition, including studies of both informal educators’ high leverage practices and youth learning in out of school programs. Based on previous research on folk-ecological thought, we predict that Indigenous samples will be more likely than comparison samples to mobilize complex-systems reasoning about ecosystems. Intellectual Merit. Findings from this project will have clear implications for theories of cognitive development, especially those pertaining to how knowledge is shaped by culture and experience. If the anticipated cultural influences on complex ecosystems cognition are found, these results could have significant implications for both science education and cognitive development. Instead of viewing complex-systems reasoning as a uniform challenge, this work can identify specific practices and supports for ecological reasoning as they are nurtured in cultural communities. If so, focusing on ecosystems may represent an opportunity to not only increase engagement and achievement in science among non-dominant communities and Native youth specifically, but also advance effective learning for all communities. Our design studies are aimed at exploring this compelling possibility. Broader Impacts: This project contributes to improving science education by its focus on relational epistemological orientations and their consequences for understanding the natural world in general and ecosystems in particular. A deeper understanding of cultural influences on conceptions of the natural world can serve to
Effective start/end date9/1/178/31/22


  • National Science Foundation (DRL-1713368)


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