Posted by: soniahs | April 9, 2011

Impressions from NARST

Earlier this week, I attended a conference of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching. I wasn’t presenting anything (missed the submission deadline), but it turned out to be fairly worthwhile. I ended up only attending two days of the conference, and focusing primarily on the digital tools/informal science sessions. I did get the chance to chat with a few people about my work and make some connections, which is always nice.

Here are just a few impressions from the conference.

  • The digital media tools used for science education seemed to mainly fall into two categories: simulations for teaching science concepts, and simulations for assessment purposes. (This is probably not a very profound observation.) The former seems to be the more ‘traditional’ tools, e.g., using racing games or pinball-esque scenarios to teach about physics. The latter are newer to me, at least, and are significant in that they represent an attempt to get away from multiple-choice tests for testing inquiry. There were some neat ideas from both these general categories.
  • The digital tools for informal learning were more wide-ranging, which you’d expect. There were some cool demos here; two I found interesting were FoldIt (which turns protein-folding problems into crowdsourced puzzle games) and Dancing the Earth (which uses a mixed-reality simulation to teach astronomy concepts).
  • The session that was probably most useful for me immediately was one on problems in teaching evolution. Some of the bigger conceptual issues raised here were: the challenge of linking evolutionary processes at different scales (e.g., population dynamics & speciation), teaching students to differentiate between useful and non-useful types of evidence, and difficulties with reading phylogenetic trees.
  • I also went to a session on philosophy of science, objectivity, and teaching about pseudoscience. Some of the ideas from this session would be useful if I ever did teach science again, since it was more geared toward educators. One presentation in particular stands out, on the subject of teaching science in communities which place a high level of emphasis on traditional ecological knowledge. The presenter tried to lay out a strategy that charts a middle course between immediate rejection or fuzzy acceptance of TEK, by focusing on talking about cultural technologies, rather than immediately comparing philosophies. The idea seems to be to focus on areas where there’s common ground (i.e., observation, testing, and building technologies in both traditional cultures and science), rather than immediately alienating students by dismissing their culture or dismissing science as a specialized way of understanding the world. This is an interesting idea to think about.
  • Finally, trying to present via Skype is just asking for trouble. I attended one session (a digital media session, naturally) in which two presenters were going to present via Skype. Even though everything was clearly set up and working during the break before the session, when it came time to present, something went wrong with the sound on someone’s end. The two presenters ended up being able to give their talks, after much technical tweaking, but this did not go smoothly.
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