How conversations between youth and scientists during internships shape learning trajectories

By Déana Scipio - May 2011


Hsu, P.-L., Roth, W.-M., & Mazumder, A. (2009). Natural pedagogical conversations in high school students’ internship. Journal of Research in Science Teaching46(5), 481–505.


Employing various conversational techniques can lead to more authentic science and allow for either scientist or student to begin the conversation. These techniques can increase learning opportunities for students working with scientists in informal environments.

What Is The Issue?

This study identifies the elements of natural pedagogical conversations during an internship in a science laboratory. It offers ISE practitioners insights into how scientists teach science in their labs, how youth interns initiate learning, and describes productive conversational forms that may impact their own work with youth.

What Was The Study?

This study is an ethnography of a 2-month long (10–16 hours total) university-based internship for high school youth. It focuses on one group of students who worked with a graduate student scientist (Nora) in her laboratory. The researchers did a close analysis of Nora’s normal teaching practice and broke it down into three steps:

1. Demonstration—Nora introduced the task and demonstrated techniques. She used the equipment to physically demonstrate techniques to the interns.

2. Practice phase—Interns did the work while she stood by, ready to jump in and help.

3. Connection phase—She explained the connection between the previous task and the next step by showing concrete results from the previous task.

The study contrasted Nora’s interaction with the interns with the ways that students and teacher interactions are characterized within traditional classrooms by the I-R-E framework: Initiate (teacher), Respond (student), Evaluate (teacher). The researchers identified two conversational techniques between the scientist and interns that were different from what happens in a traditional classroom: Initiate-Clarify-Reply (I-C-R) and Initiate-Reply-Clarify-Reply (I-R-C-R). Both scientist and interns could initiate the conversation with a question, by describing a process in words, or by gesture. Clarifying could entail confirming, expressing a concern in words, or by a gesture. The reply would be a non-evaluative response. The major difference between this conversation style and the classroom framework was the lack of evaluation, which allowed the scientists and interns to focus on doing science in the laboratory.

What Were The Findings?

Over time these conversational techniques led to richer interactions between scientists and interns. They start off describing short interactions, but over the 2-month period the conversations get longer, incorporating more clarification and more complex replies. The researchers contend that these conversational techniques will lead to more authentic science and allow for either scientist or intern to begin the conversation. They maintain that these techniques will help to increase learning opportunities for students working with scientists in informal environments.

The analysis of the conversational interactions is very technical. However, ISE practitioners can learn much from the snippets of actual conversations, descriptions of practice, and text-based analyses earlier on in the paper.