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July 2009  |  Return to issue home

2009 Gordon C. Lee Dissertation Award: Leah Bricker

Leah Bricker was awarded the 2009 Gordon C. Lee Dissertation Award, which recognizes the best dissertation from the College of Education in a given year. Bricker’s dissertation: A sociocultural historical examination of youth argumentation across the settings of their lives: Implications for science education.

Leah Bricker
Leah Bricker

As Dean Patricia Wasley wrote to Bricker, “[Yours is] the most outstanding dissertation completed in the College of Education during the current academic year. Committee members were particularly compelled by your choice of a topic of high importance to contemporary education. Among a particularly strong field of nominees this year, you stood out and you can be proud of this accomplishment.”

Bricker’s academic interests include science education, learning sciences, science studies, and youth participatory action research. As a prospective student, Bricker sought an interdisciplinary understanding of human learning. She brought a strong background in science education to her work as a graduate student, as a middle school science teacher and an official for the Indiana state department of education, where she worked on coordinating K-12 science education. Bricker also worked on K-12 STEM education reform at the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Project 2061. For Bricker, what was missing in her background was a focus on learning and opportunities to conduct research. She turned to the Learning Sciences program at the UW College of Education to concentrate on both areas.

“During my time at UW, I fell in love with learning how to design, conduct, and process research,” Bricker states, “and therefore, my immediate career goals involve working at an institution that affords me the opportunities to continue my research. My long-term career goals involve working with youth to help them research issues of importance to them and to ensure that their voices are represented in our literatures, policies, etc.”

Bricker is currently a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago in its Teaching and Learning area. “I work with undergraduate students who want to be elementary school teachers and interact with them about how to best teach elementary school science. I also interact with graduate students about what we know as a field relative to learning across the settings of our lives and about various views of learning that have historically informed decisions about curricula, instruction, and assessment.

Bricker’s dissertation work is closely related to the work of the Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center, part of a $25 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that includes collaborations between learning scientists at the University of Washington, SRI International, Stanford University and others. The Lifelong and Lifewide Learning Model demonstrates the ways that the LIFE Center examines the ways that people learn across the lifespan in a number of environments, including informal learning spaces.

Bricker’s own work fits into the broader spectrum of LIFE’s studies, specifically an ethnographic study led by Philip Bell on how youth learn science and technology. As Bricker summarizes relative to her dissertation, “I noticed a gap in the science education literature with respect to engaging youth in school science with what it means to argue scientifically. ...That was a missing piece for me because research tells us that learners draw on related and relevant knowledge, experiences, practices, etc. when learning something new. In order to address this gap, my dissertation is a survey of youth argumentation across the settings of their lives.”

Her dissertation committee included a range of faculty, including Philip Bell from the College of Education, Leah Ceccarelli from the Department of Communications, Arthur Fine from the Department of Philosophy, Reed Stevens from the College of Education, and Mark Windschitl from the College of Education. John Frederiksen from the College of Education was also involved in the early phases of Bricker’s work.

For her dissertation work, Bricker studied the young people participating in the aforementioned ethnography, analyzing how they argue across the settings of their lives. Through observing youth and discussing their argumentative practices with them, she learned about their strategies and motivations. As such, her dissertation examines a range of factors in argumentation, such as where youth argue and how their argumentation relates to learning. Bricker recalls one example, a youth who explained how he argued while playing soccer. She writes, “One youth involved with the project said that two types of argumentation are involved in playing soccer; one is helpful to his learning relative to becoming a better soccer player while the other is not. He told me that fighting, yelling, etc. (practices he and the other youth in the study associate with some types of argumentation) are not helpful to his learning. He states that argumentation, which is more critique-like, is helpful to his learning.”

Overall, the youngsters impressed Bricker with their sophisticated analysis of their argumentative practices. She notes that she was particularly drawn to the words that youth selected for arguments. “... I think understanding the details of language usage during argumentation might lead to promising school science curricular and instructional design efforts,” Bricker asserts. “Related, I am fascinated by the cultural aspects of youth argumentation (i.e., cultural practices that either promoted or constrained youth argumentation), as well as the relationships between learning and argumentation.”

When asked about Bricker’s dissertation, Bell says “we desperately need systematic and ambitious research that documents the vital funds of knowledge that youth possess who are all too frequently marginalized within our formal schooling institutions. We need this kind of expansive account of children’s lives outside of schools so that we can understand the full range of vibrant cultural ecologies in which they participate—and to then use that information to inform the design of classroom instruction and to make it relevant to learners.”

Bricker is grateful for her time spent as a student at the UW College of Education. She specifically credits her mentor, Philip Bell, with her success, along with her other professors, colleagues and friends. As she writes, “I want to thank the youth and families who participated in my dissertation work and the larger ethnographic study. Without their kindness and assistance, none of this work would have been possible. ... It was a wonderful five years full of challenging work, thoughtful, insightful, and exciting conversations, and steep learning curves. What a joy. I look forward to continued collaborations.”

July 2009  |  Return to issue home

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