A multimodal take on scientific inquiry as an embodied practice: methodological challenges

tabeltop1Authors: Carey Jewitt, Sara Price and Mona Sakr

In the embodiment project within MODE we have been working on some in depth analysis of our empirical studies of students using a tangible table-top learning environment to explore the scientific concepts of light. This has led us to ask how processes of scientific inquiry can be examined multi-modally and to explore how we can understand the body in scientific inquiry and its role in exploration, discovery, hypothesis building, explanation, and linking.

The categories we have traditionally used to make sense of scientific discourse are based largely on what people say to each other. Often however, students appear to be deeply engaged in scientific inquiry through physical interaction without talking. Applying categories of scientific discourse to the video data we have collected is thus proving challenging. We are faced with a methodological challenge – we can assume that nothing of import is occurring when students are silent, or we can try and work out how their physical activity supports scientific inquiry. In doing the latter, we are problematizing and rethinking notions of scientific discourse in a tangible learning environment where the focus is so strongly on embodied interaction. This involves asking new questions like:

Exploration: How does the body explore? Are movements different if exploration is more or less informed by observation? If there is a difference between purposeful exploration and purposeful activity, is this distinction visible in the body?

Discovery: How does the body observe significant events? What movements facilitate discovery? How does the body respond to change prior to the verbal articulation of discovery? How are methods of discovery (e.g. comparison) related to movement? How do collaborators demonstrate their discoveries to one another?

Hypothesis building: How is the body involved in building hypotheses? Does the body withdraw/’make way’ for the verbal process of hypothesis generation? How does the body set up the conditions for hypothesis generation? How are movements used to communicate hypotheses to others?

Explanation: How is the body involved in explaining phenomena? When explanations are produced, how is the body involved? When attempts at explanation are unsuccessful, how is this visible in the body?

Linking: How is movement involved when students are linking what they’re observing to prior knowledge and experience? How is movement used to invoke other sites of experience? How is the collective memory of collaborators invoked through the body e.g. comparison over time? How is the body involved in the development of a shared scientific terminology?

We are currently using these questions as a starting point for analysing the video data and in order to look for patterns in the interactions we observe. This should help us to understand how tangible technologies may be able to support scientific inquiry and challenge the way we make sense of it.

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