Masters Thesis

Investigating Student and Teacher Perspectives on Approaches toward Student Epistemic Agency through a Socioscientific Issue in Secondary Science Classrooms

Purpose of the Study: This research study hopes to address the negotiation of important aspects in teaching such as how to foster inquiry and literacy while adhering to standards, specifically the Next Generation Science Standards, and if those standards allow for student epistemic agency in secondary science classrooms. The future of science education lies in teachers instilling in their students the skills that will help them gain scientific literacy and student agency in the classroom, and beyond. For the purposes of this study, a framework was developed around scientific inquiry and literacy, while negotiating varying pedagogical approaches, along a theorized spectrum of increasing student agency. The framework is a tool to help educators visualize a variety of pedagogies as they relate to important characteristics of stages of inquiry that could offer increasing epistemic agency for their students. This research study intends to shed light on the perspectives and opinions of a selected group of high school life science teachers and some of their students in regards to these approaches to teaching a controversial, or Socioscientific Issue (SSI), in the science classroom. The student outcome goals that were considered were critical thinking, personal decision making, ethical questioning, outreach and “social justice” as activism. The three classrooms include one Sheltered Learning biology class and one Advanced Placement biology, both at the same high school, and one Integrated 3-4 biology class in a neighboring County. Within and across the three different classrooms, how do participating teachers, and their students’ perceive, or view, (a) varying approaches toward using a controversial, or Socioscientific Issue (SSI), such as GMOs, in secondary science classroom, and (b) activities designed for the science classroom that have the end goals of outreach, social justice or activism, on or off campus? Finally, how does student preference compare to the proposed theoretical framework set forth in this study? Procedure: This mixed-method study is a one-phase embedded design approach; where quantitative data is the secondary data that was collected while qualitative data was being audio recorded during teacher and student interviews. Four activity “scenarios” were designed, along with interview questionnaires, and used as tools and guides during teacher and student interviews. Three high school life science teachers and 13 of their students were interviewed to investigate their perspectives on using the four different activity scenarios which would explore the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as food. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected and analyzed. Findings: Overall, two classes preferred Activity 1; critical thinking in the lab, whereas one classroom preferred Activities 3; outreach and 4; activism, although students had a variety of responses as to why. All three teachers and many students agreed that outreach and activism are important. However, teachers believed that activities that stayed in the classroom were more feasible that activities that left the classroom. Teachers were fairly accurate when predicting their students preferred activity scenario. All the participants said that GMOs as food would be a good topic for learning science in the classroom. Teachers and students felt that activities that are controversial, or that might cause conflict in the classroom, are acceptable for learning at school. Those who were asked felt that conflict can be managed and usually does not leave the classroom. When the varying perspectives within classrooms were reflected on the spectrum, new ideas about what student epistemic agency and scientific literacy are emerged. Conclusions: Student epistemic agency can be defined in many ways, including what the students want to do most. However, agency through varying teaching approaches and a variety of student outcome goals can bring different forms of agency to students while doing inquiry in the science classroom. Finally, students may come into the classroom with prior experiences that give them a different “position” when negotiating a controversial, or socioscientific, type issue. Implications for teaching practice involve balancing factors that are within our control, such as activity planning and pedagogical approach, with factors that are out of teachers control, such as the starting point of a student’s position when they enter the classroom for learning. This starting point position can have large impacts on a student’s perceptions, and willingness, to “like” activities Finally, teachers play a large role in how learning can happen in the classroom, as well the school and society that they lie within.