The Cultural Context of Learning: Native American Science Education

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

The long-term goal of this project is to improve science learning and school achievement for Native-American children. The project is composed of two complementary strands of work aimed at supporting students’ navigation between and through the various cultural contexts in which Native students learn science. One strand of work consists of design experiments in both in-school and out-of-school settings that develop, extend, and refine design principles and related curricular innovations that aim to improve science instruction for Indian children. The second strand of work consists of a series of small-scale cognitive research studies that are intended to support components of the design work and grapple with two central questions: 1) What are the impacts of ecological organization of knowledge and orientations on cognition? and 2) What are the impacts of relational construals (at minimum across space, time & identity), in the form of perspective taking and “reasoning”, on cognition?


This project is a collaborative effort between Northwestern University, TERC, the Menominee Nation and the American Indian Center of Chicago (AIC).

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is cross-sectional and comparative, and is designed to generate evidence which is descriptive (design research) and associative/correlational (quasi-experimental). This project collects original data using videography observation, survey research, and face-to-face structured and semi-structured interviews. We use both qualitative and quantitative analysis for the small scale studies, interviews, and surveys. We use primarily qualitative methods for the observations of both the classroom design experiments and the design process. However, we will do quantitative analysis of some segments of the design experiments including the content analysis.


We have found that engaging students in community-based science has dramatic impacts on their overall stance, engagement, and identification with in science. For example, there was a change from seeing science as a “bunch of facts” that one learns in school to describing science as a set of practices that one may learn from an elder or a parent or by observation (Bang and Medin, 2010). We have also been videotaping community meetings and have observed parallel changes in discourse patterns. Some of our community members attended school during the infamous “boarding school era” and the community planning process has included revisiting the historical trauma associated with that period. In the case of the Menominee community, events triggered by “termination” and the struggle for restoration have been an important part of discussions. A detailed example of “taking ownership of science” as part of reclaiming sovereignty is provided in Bang et al (2010).

Interviews & Tasks.

Nature of Science Pre/Post Interviews with Students. We have completed all previous year's interviews. We find significant changes in students' conceptions of the nature of science pre/post program implementation from prior years. Students show a shift in understanding science as body of facts to memorized and scripted lab experiments to a set of practices in which you learn about and make sense of the world. We also see significant changes in students' identification with and ownership of science as an authentic and necessary enterprise for Native people to engage in. Further students show significant shifts in their perceptions about who they learn science from. Pre interviews show that students' almost exclusively say science is an activity restricted to the classroom and from their teachers to science is something that anyone can do in different parts of their lives. In addition, in the Chicago sample we find a significant shift in students' expectations about science being in part about explaining mechanism.

Teacher Meetings: Teachers have been meeting weekly for the entire year. These meetings have been taped and the majority have been transcribed. We have developed an initial coding scheme and have coded about 2/3 of the teacher meeting data. We are in the midst of analyzing these data, however we have some exciting preliminary results that to report. We examined teacher talk across a series of design meetings in order to explore the multiple resources and practices, discursive as well as participatory structures, teachers draw from as then engage in the design of science lessons for community-based settings. There were six main content domains that emerged including science, scaffolds and navigating, stories, models and representations, big ideas and main topics, and relationships to place. Broad issues of science made up 25% percent of talk, followed by issues of scaffolding and navigating (17%). Stories and models and representations ranked next (14% and 13% respectively). Big ideas or main topics made up 11% of talk, and finally relationship to place constituted 8% of talk. We explored whether these were different for each individual teacher who participated (there were 5). While there are slight variations in the order of the six content domains, stories and models and representations in four of the five teachers remain in the same relative position of the overall talk.

From our experience and recollection in these meetings, stories played important roles, however the relationships to models emerging from the data had not been obvious to us. In making sense of these findings we considered prior work in science education with American Indians. While the intersection of teachers talk coded in the story domain in relation to other domains may have significant functions, we were particularly intrigued that models and representations and scaffolding and navigating accounted for over half of the intersections. The correlation between stories and models and representations suggests that the use of stories may be serving as a crucial interlocutor between deep content domain knowledge and the development of new pedagogical practices (p<.05).

Given that the context of design meetings is to figure out concepts in ways that honor community-based ways of knowing, we should expect there to be a correlation between stories, big ideas, models and representations, relationships to place. We suggest that for Native teachers seeing stories as representations of knowledge opens up the space for pedagogical theorizing, where stories get taken up as a model or way to represent the relational organization of knowledge.

Science Text Book Analysis. We have developed and are implementing a coding system for science textbooks that parallels our analyses of Native- and non-Native children's books. Our coding system includes the camera shots we found so useful before but it adds a number of new codes to reflect the illustration strategies that are not found in children's books (e.g. cross-sections, showing phenomena at multiple scales simultaneously.

Design Analysis. We have completed coding of our entire corpus of design data. This includes more than 36 meetings, and design activities making up more than 1500 pages of transcribed design data. We are beginning to run analysis on this data this summer. There are several lines of analysis underway of the design data. The first is a detailed analysis of conceptions of the nature of scientific knowledge that was conducted of youth's pre and post data. In addition, we are analyzing 1. decision moments throughout the course of the design, 2. overall stances towards science when those choices were made, 3. the content focus that was continually refined and chosen, and 4. the overall conceptions of children, teaching, and learning that designers reflected. There are several lines of analysis that have emerged that are pulled from the larger data corpus as they reflect fine grain size threads of fascinating components of the design work. These include a focus on plants, water, place, and stories. This builds from part of our teacher meeting analysis in which stories have featured prominently; however, it is also based on early findings that a significant portion of time in designer meetings was focused on each of these major domains.

Publications & Presentations: 


Bang, M., Medin, D., Washinawatok, K. & Chapman, S. (2010). Innovations in Culturally-based Science Education through Partnerships and Community, in M.S. Khine & I. Saleh (Eds). New Science of Learning: Cognition, Computers and Collaboration in Education. New York, NY: Springer.

Bang, M. & Medin, D. (in press). Cultural Processes in Science Education: Supporting the Navigation of Multiple Epistemologies, Science Education.

Bang, M. & Marin, A., (submitted). Storied Transformations in Science Teaching: Teacher's Sights of Theory Regeneration. Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

Bang, M., Medin, D., and Cajete, G. (2009). Improving Science Education for Native Students: Teaching Place Through Community. SACNAS, spring.

Medin, D. & Bang, M., (2008). Perspective Taking, Diversity and Partnerships. APA Online.

Bang, M., Medin, D., & Atran, S. (2007). Cultural Mosaics and Mental Models of Nature. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104, 13868-13874.

Bang, M., Medin, D., Soto, C., & Kessel, A. (2007). Community Based Design of an After-School Program in an Urban Indian Community. Paper presented at the National Indian Education Association Conference.

Conference Presentations:

Bang, M. (2010). Expanding the possibilities of students’ navigation and meaning making of bordered territories: STEM education towards sustainability. Presidential Session AERA, Denver, CO.

Marin, A. & Bang, M. (2010). Storied Transformations in Science Teaching: Teacher’s Sights of Theory Regeneration. Symposium AERA, Denver, CO.

Bang, M. & Marin, A. (February, 2010). “We know from out elders there are spirits in there [River]”: Reconstructing science education towards lived survivance, sovereignty, and sustainability. Paper presented at the Symposium on Indigenous Education in the 21st Century, AERA. Tempe, AZ.

Marin, A., Bang, M., & Medin, M. (June, 2010). Mental state expressions in American Indian and European American authored children books. Poster presented at the annual research conference of the Institute of Education Sciences. National Harbor, MD.

Invited Talks and Colloquia - Megan Bang

Psychological Distance, Culture Orientations, and Science Learning. Invited Colloquia at University of Illinois 2009.

Improving Science Education for Native Students: Changes in Teacher Education. Invited Colloquia at University of Michigan, 2009.

Other Products: 

This project will include several classroom units focused on forest ecology, plant ecology, and fresh water ecology.