Does a Taiwanese child from a remote village view biology as an interesting subject? Is a child from the steppes of Siberia motivated to learn physics? Might a Native American child from North Dakota aspire to become a scientist? These are some of the questions that a collaborative of international researchers, assembled by associate professor Eleanor Abrams, are asking, hoping to discover why indigenous student populations worldwide are often underrepresented and underachieving in the sciences.
Abrams, whose field of research is science education, partnered with UNH colleague Mike Middleton, an education psychologist interested in motivation, to explore the different contexts and influences that affect indigenous student learning. With funding from UNH sources and then the National Science Foundation, the two have now established research relationships in five countries—Taiwan, Russia, New Zealand, Belize, and Canada—as well as with researchers in the American west. They have traveled to Belize and Taiwan, and will soon visit Siberia.
Rejecting the notion of cross-cultural comparison, which may encourage a “this country is better than that country” mindset, the UNH researchers are interested instead in the ways that each context creates unique opportunities and challenges for student learning. Regardless of the differences in context, however, the collaborating researchers have agreed to look at the same set of issues: science learning; the transition from local village schools into larger majority schools; the role of majority culture in the way students view themselves and their motivation towards science; and the impact of local economies on the educational process.
“What we’re realizing,” says Abrams, “is how much context matters. We found in the case of Belize that students were more motivated to learn science than in some indigenous communities because the teachers were indigenous themselves and were effective at connecting science with the students’ lives and future goals.” In Belize, Middleton points out, ecotourism has brought indigenous children into regular contact with field biologists, providing scientist role-models whom children can emulate.
In Taiwan, circumstances unique to that country have created challenges for indigenous student science learners. Taiwan’s educational system relies solely on testing for advancement, and science and math learning are crucial for advancement to college, which, in turn, is crucial for landing a good job. One result is that science is seen largely as a means to an end.
“Science is no longer an area to explore. It is really something that is an educational yardstick used to prevent or promote future opportunities,” says Middleton.
Combine this trend with the fact that the college trajectory often necessitates that an indigenous person leave her or his community—something that may not be desirable—and one can start to see how elements of a culture’s context can shape a student’s relationship to science learning.
Abrams and Middleton are intent on pointing out that placing a value judgment on these findings requires caution. As researchers, they are vigilant about examining their own values and not imposing them on others.
“In fact, Eleanor and I have had long conversations about this, even about the idea of advancing in school. Is advancing in school the right thing for every child? That’s a value we hold. Is it held by the student and the family and the community?” asks Middleton.
Abrams adds, “We don’t come from a cultural-deficit model where we feel like we’re going to go in and fix the children of the village. They have incredible resources and wealth of knowledge at their fingertips and we value that.”
The ongoing research will only move to the realm of applied research through the volition of the indigenous communities themselves, if they want that.
Abrams and Middleton hope their findings prove useful closer to home. For example, parallels in context might exist between rural New Hampshire communities and indigenous communities. While indigeneity itself is not a factor for New Hampshire children, related factors might be at play, such as a strong desire for children to remain in the communities in which their families have lived for generations.
First and foremost, Abrams and Middleton are focused on getting their findings out and furthering academic dialog. For Middleton, the conversations this research has sparked in his field of motivation have been fruitful.
“Motivation is often seen as an individual characteristic—kids either have it or they don’t. We look very little at the interplay of the individual in their cultural context. In this research, we find that motivation is more of a cultural process than an individual process sometimes,” says Middleton.
But these researchers are also focused on nurturing and maintaining the relationships they are building with their colleagues worldwide, and the communities in which these colleagues live.
“You have to walk the talk of engaged scholarship,” says Abrams, referring to the central initiative of international engagement in the university’s recently unveiled Strategic Plan. “We’re not just going to go in [to the indigenous communities] and take information and leave, or go in and give a survey and leave. We have to come back and connect with that community. It is about relationships.”
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