Author Archives: Christina Restrepo Nazar

Youth as Active Agents in Conscientizing Grain-sizes of Science Teaching and Learning

by Christina Restrepo Nazar

Today’s blogpost comes after my research group’s (and I) careful discussion on making sense of youth’s agency, resistance and empowerment in science. We read a book chapter by Daniels, Harnischfeger, Hos & Akom (2010)  titled “Youth as Active Agents: Counter-narrating the Source of Reform” and it was absolutely on point with one of the important strands in my research as a science education scholar.

I have been interested in supporting youth agency in science for quite some time now.  Through the cases I co-developed with AD, Faith and Christopher as part of my  graduate student work at Invincibility Lab, (see ex. The Case of Faith) I have seen the importance of how youth identify and connect with (for what and for whom) meaningful science learning–as a source of promoting agency, identifying forms of resistance to the discursive/culture of power in science, and/or embracing and empowering themselves with the tools to use science–in meaningful and transformative ways for themselves and for their communities. But most importantly is how this learning does not only transform the youth in their particular learning spaces, but that it also supports meaningful others in transforming structures of power that youth have come to know/understand as determinants of their success in science education (e.g. teacher education, policy, curriculum,  reasons for engaging in practices of science in the first place). (See also the blog post on critical and consequential science literacy).

Because of this, during this very important discussion last week, I asked myself two questions: how can people take up/make sense of youths’ meaningful learning in science? And how can people with the power to transform their spaces and/or practices (e.g. teachers, pre-service teachers, researchers, curriculum developers, policy makers, etc….) do so as they engage with these transformative messages?

It is well established in the field that when science learning is most associated with the lives of students–either the process of learning and doing science and/or the outcomes of the learning itself–they engage meaningfully with the discourse, practices, and norms of science (Basu & Calabrese Barton, 2007) . However, I argue that  it takes a level of conscientization, or “the processes in which [people] achieve a deepening awareness of both the sociocultural reality that shapes their lives and their capacity to transform that reality” (Freire, 1985, p.93) to be aware of how this “meaningfulness” affects them and their pathways for learning. For the students I work with specifically, I can claim that they did not know science/engineering could become meaningful to their lives until they were able to bridge problems  in their communities using science/engineering and that making sense of those problems can drive solutions that are important to them–and more expansively–their families and communities (e.g. The Case of Faith).  Additionally, this conscientization became more powerful for the youth when they knew these messages can be meaningful for others, because now they knew these messages were going to be taken up by people who would view them as doing, making, creating, inventing, EVERYTHING in ways that were not normative in science education.

Hence, it is important that as researchers, teachers, teacher educators, we support youths’ “active agency,” through mutually empowering and collaborating with youth in co-constructing reform efforts by 1) helping them be aware of their realities (including the social, political, cultural, and economic structures that oppress and harm them) and 2) creating opportunities to challenge the narratives that oppress them to empower them.

This creates an important juncture in identifying different levels of “active agency” that we can help support. For example, as science educators who are interested in issues of equity, we should not only be creating spaces for youth to learn through our respective research programs, agendas and the like, but that we take the learning from one space and bring it to another, and support a multi-level approach to “critical consciousness”  (Freire, 1973). We have the political, social, and economic power to identify and take  action against the oppressive elements affecting youth in our society, in their classrooms, or in their daily interactions with youth–we just have to find the meaningful connections to them and create consciousness in the process.  

Hence as we discuss these multi-levels of active agency, and the grain-sizes involved, let’s look at how learning from students conscientization can create critical consciousness in pre-service teachers to better engage with youths’ funds of knowledge in the classroom. Let’s take this active agency to curriculum developers and STEM pipeline programs so that they understand what it means to learn science meaningfully and how they can support youth in this work. Let’s take this active agency to national policy programs and foundations so that they understand exactly what student experiences are limiting or not their learning. Let’s move this work beyond research/academia and the like, but to new and expansive places where the conscientization of one youth can become “sources of reform” for others.  By conscientizing these structures of power we are challenging the hegemonic  cultural/social/educational/political/other structures that support or inhibit meaningful science learning, crossing time, space and place.

Youth as Counter-storytellers: Using Multimodality to Discuss Meaningful Science and Engineering Learning (Part I: The Case of Faith)

By: Christina Restrepo Nazar

How do we increase access for marginalized and minoritized communities who have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM education? Our youth may have the answer!

K-12 STEM education initiatives are one of the most pressing issues being discussed across universities, policy centers and schools nationwide.  Often times we enter with assumptions as researchers and practitioners into schools and communities by pledging to “fix” problems and proposing best practices for success.This is why I am very excited to be part of the Invincibility Lab team where we constantly work towards (re) identifying community assets and forefronting experiences, ideas and subjectivities of youth in how they describe and identify what is meaningful science learning. In this series of three blog posts, I will discuss my work with Faith, AD and Christopher, three youth inventors who participated in GETCity, our equity oriented makerspace. Although I have worked with the youth for almost three years, for this particular study, we met for an hour a week for a period of 6 months creating multimodal messages of what it meant to engage in meaningful science learning, specifically when engineering for sustainable communities. The case co-construction was comprised of negotiating  multimodal artifacts that describe their STEM learning across spaces and over time.

The Case of Faith: A 14 years old, African American female high school student, she created a solar panel fan-hat, primarily to keep church members cool during the summer time. Her  design was created when she was 12 years old. She discussed three important problems when deciding on an engineering design: 1) ladies who go to her church wear stylish hats that often times cannot be worn during the summer time due to the very hot un-airconditioned church 2) the church she goes to has ceiling windows where solar light shines through, enough that she believed can power a solar panel and 3) her family’s personal appearance in avoiding being hot and sweaty in public places (e.g. school, work, church). In her design, she identified important criteria and constraints based on the needs of her community, for example, the type of hat she used, the design considerations regarding placement of motor, fan with blades and solar panel, and wires that connected to the solar panel.

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Faith’s sketch up of her FANcy Hat!

When we started our multimodal case study, Faith was very adamant about describing frustrations related to how her engineering design was not linear. She constantly had problems in finalizing one design requirement, and then those problems shifted based on community needs. In the beginning of her design  year, we gave her an engineering design cycle based on the NASA model, which focused on stating the problem, generating ideas, selecting solutions, building, evaluating and presenting results. However, Faith described her invention as one that had “multiple circles and many steps” because her design was constantly being re-informed by how her community best viewed their needs through the hat. Eventually, after much negotiation, Faith and I decided to create her own engineering cycle that showed the steps she took in her design and how community needs informed and re-informed the design as it moved forward.

Although her fan-hat design was an engineering project for sustainable communities, during her case study development, a lot of the discussions we had were around how important community ethnography and obtaining perspectives from friends and family were crucial to how she thinks about herself as a friend and listener. Many times there were stories of how she helped her friends, family and others with emotional problems and that her advice was always to create a sculpture that housed all their frustrations. To create the sculpture you have to use tools, such as hammers and screwdrivers, which are also used by engineers. By doing so, she connected these community needs in engineering to her interest in psychology. In her case, she described herself as an  “imagination creator” because she is constantly re-imagining what it means to create and do with and for others, and this is clearly seen through the videos, pictures and audio she chose to describe her engineering design and career choice on her multimodal case.  In one of her videos, she made the case for redefining what it means to do engineering with and for communities: by thinking of  a new way to apply science and engineering as a psychological tool. She named this psychoengineering.

This very important example of Faith’s engagement in meaningful science learning is just one example of youth can counter narrate their experiences. What makes Faith’s case so unique is that although her engineering work in GETCity happened over 2 years ago, she still uses examples from her engagement with community ethnography to set criteria and constraints in her design process, to inform how she now thinks about creating new perspectives for her learning and participation with science. For example, redefining what it means to do engineering design because of her focus on community needs, and also how she thinks of applying engineering design to psychology through a career path she wants to develop for herself with psychoengineering. Finally, she used all these meaningful learning experiences and counternarratives to drive the creation of her multimodal case.