Science camps and student identities in science

By Heather King - June 2011


Fields, D, A. (2009). What do students gain from a week at science camp? Youth perceptions and the design of immersive research-orientated astronomy camp. International Journal of Science Education, 31(2), 151–171.

Using Gee’s (2004) notion of ‘affinity spaces’ – places where people collaboratively interact in response to a common interest or affinity – this paper examines how a week-long astronomy camp can shape student self-identities. The paper also examines the design of the camp and notes that it successfully blends the ‘student-led research’ approach with the ‘cognitive-apprenticeship model’

Hay and Barab (2001) have previously characterised science camps as being either ‘constructionist’ in that they focus on the student acquiring or constructing a new understanding as a result of their own personal research study, or ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ in which students contribute to and learn from an existing study led by a scientist. A critique of the former is that students fail to connect and identify with the larger community of scientists, whilst in the latter, students fail to gain critical skills due to a lack of ownership. In this paper, Fields describes an astronomy camp in which students designed, conducted and presented their own research with the help of professional scientists who modeled behaviour, scaffolded learning and demonstrated the nature of their particular scientific community. She notes that this was achieved in part by establishing an ‘affinity space’ wherein all the participants in the camp (students and staff) shared enthusiasm, knowledge, and expertise. By employing staff at all levels – undergraduates, post-graduates, postdoctoral researchers and professional scientists – the camp became an environment where all were learning and the line between student and staff became blurred. Fields also highlights the way that the design of a camp as an affinity space can help participants develop various identities. For the students this may involve the development of an identity as a future research scientist, an astronomer, or even an astronaut.

Fields’ data comprised semi-structured interviews with students and staff and observations of camp activities. Common themes from the student interviews included the importance of and enthusiasm for being able to relate to peers with a shared interest in science; the welcomed opportunity for personal autonomy, especially in designing research and using professional science tools (i.e. telescopes); and the positive impact of the staff. With regards to the understanding of scientific knowledge, students referred to a better understanding of the process of science including the difficulties involved in using equipment, the length of time required for analysis, and the impact of human or equipment error. In short, the campers appeared to learn ‘how ‘hard’ scientists had to work for the conclusions stated so simply in school textbooks’ (page 168).

In creating a shared affinity space, Fields argues that the astronomy camp afforded the students the opportunity to genuinely engage with ideas and develop a deep understanding about the nature of science. Perhaps most importantly, however, and of particular significance to ISE practitioners seeking to design activities promoting engagement in science, the camp afforded an opportunity for students to adopt a personal identity in science. For as Gee has argued, whether or not they choose to pursue this science-related identity, it is important they have at least imagined themselves capable of doing it, and this will advantageously impact on their understanding of science in the future.

References cited:

Gee, J.P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge.

Hay, K,E., & Barab, S.A. (2001). Constructivism in practice: A comparison and contrast of apprenticeship and constructionist learning environments. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 10(3), 281-322.