My dissertation was not a study of a classroom, a teacher, or a student. It was a study of a concept, specifically, the concept of “understanding” in science education. Inspired by anthropologists who study and describe the practices of real-life scientists in action, I chronicled the practices of teams of real-life scientists engaged in two different professional contexts. First, I described a team of field scientists as they sought to understand an unfamiliar phenomenon unfolding in the forests of Brazil. Second, I described a team of university science professors in a lecture hall as they helped undergraduate students understand an unfamiliar phenomenon. Comparing these two sites, I found that scientific understanding was enacted through radically different practices. In Brazil, understanding was built through practices defined by traits such as visibility and materiality. In the university setting, understanding was built through practices defined by psychological traits such as invisibility and internality. I then used this key insight to contribute a critical re-visioning of what it might mean to ‘teach for’ and ‘learn with’ understanding in university science courses.


A Study of Understanding: Alchemy, Abstraction and Circulating Reference in Tertiary Science Education


Michigan State University | East Lansing, MI. USA


Lynn Fendler (Department of Teacher Education)

Committee Members

Gail Richmond (Department of Teacher Education)
Angie Calabrese-Barton (Department of Teacher Education)
Steve Weiland (Department of Educational Administration)
Duncan Sibley (Department of Geological Sciences)


My Ph.D. thesis was accepted by ProQuest in November 2013 and can be accessed via their Dissertations & Theses Global website or downloaded directly from Google Drive via this link (PDF).