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Open Access Publications from the University of California

(Re)Figuring the World of General Chemistry: Possibilities for Participation, Learning, and Identity

  • Author(s): Palmer, Erin Sandhusen
  • Advisor(s): Stacy, Angelica M
  • et al.

Scholars have called for the design of alternative educational spaces that counter dominant narratives about who is capable of learning science (Nasir et al., 2013) and what it means to be “good” at science (Carlone et al., 2011). This design-based research study examines possibilities for learning and identity in CHEM 101B, an undergraduate general chemistry course re-designed to dismantle racialized, gendered, and classed hierarchies of competence in chemistry and provide broad access to rich chemistry learning and identities of competence for students. Specifically, this study sought to understand: 1) shifts in students’ conceptions of chemistry, chemical competence, and themselves; 2) shifts in students’ participation in chemistry learning; and 3) how course design was organized to support these shifts. Classroom video, fieldnotes, student artifacts, and written course reflections were collected and interviews were conducted with students. Analysis was carried out through close examination of students’ participation in groups, and through analyzing students’ meaning making about competent participation in chemistry learning and their chemical identities.

Findings indicate that developing more authentic conceptions of chemistry as a social practice supported students to reject the notion that being good at chemistry requires innate intelligence. Giving students opportunities to participate in ways aligned with notions of authentic chemical practice supported students to both develop identities as competent participants in chemical thinking and learning, and engage in rich and rigorous chemistry learning.

This study found that supporting rich and authentic participation in and conceptions of chemistry learning required a significant restructuring of the classroom systems around: (1) coherent content connected to core ideas, (2) engagement in collective investigation of big scientific ideas and relationships, (3) opportunities for students to be scientists as themselves and connect science to their lives, and (4) reflection that creates awareness of tensions between common sense notions and new conceptions of science. This dissertation has implications for institutions of higher education, course designers and instructors committed to constructing learning settings that deconstruct and disrupt hegemonic narratives in science and build more productive counter narratives in their place.

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