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Toward authentic scientific practice: Comparing the use of GIS in the classroom and laboratory

, Stanford University, United States

Stanford University . Awarded


Geographic information systems (GIS) is a computer system that can capture, display, and georeferenced data, which is information tagged by latitude and longitude coordinates. Layering different data sets atop a base map can reveal spatial relationships among the data that are not ordinarily perceptible in nature. A growing variety of professions are using GIS as a decision-making tool, including civil engineers, franchise developers, and epidemiologists. Earth and environmental scientists also use GIS to detect spatial patterns that are not visible through direct observation.

GIS has also made its way into classrooms, where it has been supporting science learning for more than a decade. Education reformers cite a range of benefits, from developing students' spatial skills, to providing authentic contexts for students to participate in scientists' inquiry practices. Most research on GIS in K-12 education has focused on the tool's potential to develop spatial thinking, or on the logistical challenges of classroom implementation. However, few studies have investigated assumptions that GIS truly engages students in scientific practices.

This study aims to fill this gap by examining how students are using GIS, and whether and how the tool supports "authentic" forms of scientific practice. I observed a marine ecology laboratory first to determine what counts as scientific practice, and then an eighth grade oceanography classroom to see whether and how these practices played out there, especially around participants' use of GIS software. Through case studies of the laboratory and classroom settings, this research addresses the following questions: How do scientific practices emerge around the use of GIS? How do purposes, culture, and institutional influences mediate GIS use? And what conditions enable the development of scientific thinking around the GIS?

The unit of analysis in each setting was the activity system of a small team conducting a research investigation. The laboratory case team consisted of a marine ecology doctoral student and his field assistant, who were studying the movement patterns of a coldwater fish species. The classroom case team comprised two 13-year-old boys investigating the kelp forest ecosystems of Catalina Island. In both settings I took field notes, conducted interviews, collected artifacts, and video-recorded human-human and human-computer interactions.

To be able to compare scientific practices between settings, I had to first empirically determine what counts as scientific practice. Through a process of deductive and inductive analysis, I generated a list of 45 scientific practices based on data collected in the laboratory. As far as I am aware, no other such taxonomy exists. I used this taxonomy as the basis for individual case study analyses and cross-case comparisons.

I found the science that took place at the laboratory to be both distributed and emergent, providing confirming evidence of phenomena documented by past studies of professional scientists. In sorting through the scientists' taxonomy of practices, I also established a pattern of efficient and adaptive responses to the problems presented by the distributed and emergent system they worked in. The students participated in many of the same practices observed in the laboratory, suggesting that the GIS helped to provide an authentic context for their science learning. However, they were less inclined to engage in practices classified as adaptive than the scientists were, with evidence indicating that aspects of the school setting steered students toward more efficiency-oriented patterns of response.

There is much to learn about authentic science education through this expert-novice comparison, with implications for the design of classroom technologies and pedagogy aimed at developing scientific ways of thinking and doing Although the goal of this research has been to improve science education, findings are also relevant to the field of science studies. The taxonomy of scientific practices, for example, is a starting point for more systematic efforts to concretize the rather abstract notion of scientific practice.


Takeuchi, L. Toward authentic scientific practice: Comparing the use of GIS in the classroom and laboratory. Ph.D. thesis, Stanford University. Retrieved November 14, 2019 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

Citation reproduced with permission of ProQuest LLC.

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