By Aileen Olson
As a science teacher in New York City, Kathryn Lanouette describes a moment of clarity she had teaching a class of 3rd graders. While discussing buoyancy she looked out her window and noticed a freighter slowly moving down the nearby East River. Taking her class outside, something intriguing happened as they watched the passing ship.
Kids started to consider more carefully what actually floats or sinks, and talk about relationships between ship design and materials. They also became curious about where the boats were headed, what cargo was inside, and how captains navigated the changing tidal estuaries’ currents.
“We were literally surrounded by dynamic science experiments in a big, vibrant city, experiments enmeshed in the social fabric of the city,” explains Lanouette. “I began to wonder how to tap into that richness to teach.” It was a powerful moment of children’s engagement in learning, but also a reminder of her frustration with existing constraints of school schedules and curriculums.
Previously, Lanouette had worked as a national park ranger, a research associate studying urban water quality, a museum educator, as well a teacher volunteer supporting fisheries research in the Bering Sea. The common thread was her interest in teaching and learning while fully using the nearby spaces and resources available in these varied settings. These experiences eventually led to pursuing a PhD at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.
At Berkeley, Lanouette feels she has benefitted from excellent mentorship, exciting collaborative opportunities, and exposure to research ideas percolating all around her. She was also recently honored as a recipient of the prestigious National Academy of Education Spencer Dissertation Fellowship. “My reaction to receiving this fellowship was utter surprise and delight,” says Lanouette. “Applying for the fellowship was a learning opportunity in itself and really pushed my thinking ahead.”
Her dissertation focuses on how elementary school children can learn about science within everyday spaces like their schoolyard and surrounding neighborhood. In particular, she wants to better understand how children use diverse representational forms, such as digital interactive maps, paper maps, and bar charts, in conjunction with their daily experiences, to reason about complex ecological relationships.
With 10 years of teaching experience, Lanouette has observed that kids are natural scientists, but by middle school many have lost interest in science. She has noted multiple disconnects in the way science is taught, disconnects from both the larger processes of science inquiry and also the everyday social and physical places that children inhabit on a daily basis. For example, a common unit within ecology is to study the Amazon rainforest. But how many kids know what it sounds like, feels like, looks like?
Her current research involves giving students access to Local Ground, an online participatory mapping platform developed by researchers at Berkeley’s School of Information that allows users to overlay digital maps with their own photographs, sketches, audio, video or text. Lanouette then sends students out into their own school yard to study the soil ecology underfoot. Kids measure soil compactness, count invertebrates, take field notes, make sketches, then add all their data to Local Ground. As each group adds its findings, students begin to discover relationships and compare their information with the aggregated class data on the map. This can be a powerful “aha” moment when kids begin seeing how everyday spaces are complex and intertwined systems.
Most students know their playground pretty well – the shady or sunny spots, where Kindergarteners gather, noisy vs. quiet areas – and that firsthand knowledge can be tapped to engage and motivate kids to think critically about how such factors might affect the data they’re gathering.
“What I found exciting was how kids were looking at their aggregated data and seeing it in this hybrid spatial way,” explains Lanouette. “They began reasoning about many variables simultaneously, which has been shown to be a tough thing for kids to do. They were also leveraging their everyday knowledge of the schoolyard looking for patterns and thinking critically about relationships in their data.”
Lanouette hopes to complete her PhD in 2018. Through her research, she hopes to not only advance theoretical understanding of children’s learning across contexts but also use these understandings to design classroom curriculums, museum exhibit, and teacher education programs.
“My research is a luxury I never had as a classroom and museum educator – to step back and look closely at what kids are saying and how ideas are building upon each other,” says Lanouette.
Left photo: Kathryn Lanouette was awarded a 2017 National Academy of Education Spencer Dissertation Fellowship. Her dissertation is titled, "Earthworms, Ecological Reasoning, and Participatory GIS Mapping: Design-Based Research on Children’s Developing Understanding of Life Underfoot at their Elementary School."
Middle photo: Students gather data on land use and soil quality at their school’s pond. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Lanouette.
Right photo: A student presents data relationships to peers. Photo courtesy of Kathryn Lanouette.