9 Scientizing with Science Kit: Social Media and Storytelling Mobile Apps for Developing Playful Scientist Dispositions


This article was originally published in the May-June, 2016 issue of EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY, p. 23-28.

This article provides an overview of several studies in which the authors draw on social media, storytelling, and mobile apps to help children playfully develop their own approaches to science. The authors detail their efforts to strike a balance between the structure needed to promote science learning and the flexibility needed to nurture meaningful experiences. Their find­ings illustrate the importance of such approaches for promoting learners’ scientific dispositions.


A substantial challenge in science education is helping learners become scientifically literate citizens who can critically engage with scientific information, ask their own questions about the world, and design and carry out inves­tigations to discover how the world works (e.g., Chinn & Malhotra, 2002). This development of scientific disposi­tions is important for helping learners explore potential science-related roles that are based on their interests, skills, and goals. Learners need to be free to explore sci­ence in an inquisitive and playful manner, within contexts relevant to their lives, in order to appropriate science in their own unique ways (Chinn & Malhotra, 2002; Clegg & Kolodner, 2007). In this article, we explore this question: How do we create learning environments, technologies and tools, and pedagogies that allow learners to engage authentically in science while developing a lasting, per­sonal disposition toward science in their everyday life?

Scientizing Dispositions

Close integration of science engagement, personal expression, and daily life experiences encompasses the vision we have for helping youth scientize their lives. We define scientizing as finding practical applications of science in daily life and drawing upon these connections to use science to advance one’s personal goals (Clegg & Kolodner, 2014). Scientizing is thus a process of com­ing to see the world through scientific lenses. As scientiz­ing becomes a consistent practice in a child’s life, they develop scientific dispositions (Clegg & Kolodner, 2014). We define scientific dispositions as values of, ideas about, or ways of participating in a particular discipline that come frequently, consciously, and voluntarily (e.g., Gresalfi & Cobb, 2006). Such dispositions can be critical for helping learners develop values and goals related to scientific practices that might spur their persistence in science and help them develop scientific identities (Clegg & Kolodner, 2014). However, scientific dispositions are not currently the norm for many young learners (e.g., Basu & Barton, 2007). Many children find science learning to be boring, irrelevant, and disconnected from their lives (Lee & Fradd, 1998). But what if scientizing were the norm? Learners might conduct science investigations on playgrounds with their friends; they might ask new questions about scientific phenomena at home with their siblings; and they might design new experiments as they select items at the store with their parents. We posit that such practices are not currently the norm because many current peda­gogical approaches often focus on procedural skill and content understanding at the expense of interest, curios­ity, and personal meaning. Instead, research suggests that, to best promote scientific dispositions, we need to extend learning outside of the classroom and help learners find everyday relevance for science (e.g., Borda, 2007).

Life-Relevant Learning

Our approach to supporting learners’ disposition devel­opment has been to develop life-relevant learning (LRL) programs and technologies that promote learners’ playful expression of science in personally meaningful contexts. These environments are designed to help learners identify and explore potential roles in science while discovering ways scientific inquiry can be personally related to their lives (Clegg & Kolodner, 2014). We take a design-based research approach (e.g., Barab & Squire, 2004) to the de­sign of these environments with the goal of foregrounding learners’ disposition development. We implement our de­signs and study those environments to better understand disposition development and articulate design guidelines for promoting scientific disposition development. Specifically, our design of life-relevant learning technolo­gies focuses on the iterative design and implementation of a social media app called ScienceKit, which fosters collaborative scientific inquiry in everyday life contexts.

Kitchen Chemistry (KC) is our first LRL program. In KC, learners begin with semi-structured experiments where facilitators pose cooking questions and then help learners design whole-group experiments to answer those ques­tions (e.g., Clegg, Gardner, & Kolodner, 2010). For exam­ple, to understand the role that eggs play in brownies, facilitators help learners design an experiment where learners collaborate in small groups to make the same brownie recipe, varying the number of eggs. Learners also engage in science investigations to isolate the active ingredients in their recipes. This helps them to better understand the underlying phenomena they experience while cooking (e.g., mixing eggs, oil, and water to see that eggs serve as emulsifiers for oil and water). As learners develop the basics of designing scientific investigations and understanding scientific phenomena involved in cooking, they progress to Choice Days, where they design their own investigations to perfect a dish of their choice.

Building Blocks of Scientific Dispositions

Drawing on our prior disposition research on KC, we have identified four building blocks to disposition devel­opment: (1) procedural and conceptual understanding supports learners’ efforts to develop the competence needed to engage in scientific inquiry; (2) interest helps learners develop a curiosity about the world-a desire to learn more; (3) social interactions promote learners’ engagement in communities of individuals who share similar interests as well as communities to which they can make contributions; and (4) personal connections help learners develop personal values for scientific inquiry and reasoning and a commitment to engaging in scientific inquiry (Clegg & Kolodner, 2014).

While research has demonstrated how individual building blocks can be developed, less is known about how we can help learners have unified experiences across these building blocks. We have found that LRL environments can be places where the building blocks come together to promote learners’ disposition develop­ment (Clegg & Kolodner, 2014). We hypothesize that learners’ playful expressions of science are a key aspect of successful scientific tinkering that leads to growth across the building blocks of disposition.

Technology for Supporting the Building Blocks of Disposition

While learners may not habitually take science with them everywhere they go, many are deeply connected to their digital devices, carrying them from place to place. Youth today are enthralled with using social media and instant messaging tools to share their trials and triumphs online with their friends (Boyd, 2014). Similarly, over the past two decades, technologies like virtual worlds and more recently mobile data capture and analysis tools, have been shown to effectively support learners’ scientific understanding and inquiry practices (e.g., Kuhn, McNally, Schmoll, & Cahill, 2012). We have thus sought to use and develop mobile, social media tools that stimulate the building blocks of disposition development. When arranged well, these aspects of technology support learn­ers’ integrated experiences and may lead to longer-term scientific dispositions.

To engage learners in playful expression of science through media, we take a participatory design approach to designing LRL technologies. We draw upon cooperative inquiry, a method of partnering with children throughout the design process of a technology (Druin, 1999, 2002). Our approach has focused on two groups of learners.

First, children who participate in LRL programs offer design ideas and perspectives for the ways technology can support inquiry and playful experiences within those settings. Second, we partner with youth and adult design­ers on a local participatory design team who specialize in the design of children’s technology. This intergenerational group provides valuable insights and ideas for child­-centric features that enable children to do science ac­cording to their preferences and ways of communicating. Partnering with both groups has been a key aspect to supporting playful expression of science with the tech­nologies we design (Yip, Clegg, Bonsignore, Gelderblom, Rhodes, & Druin, 2013).


Balancing Structure and Freedom

Our initial efforts in LRL focused on connecting learn­ers’ scientific inquiry practices (procedural and concep­tual understanding) to their personal interests. We used two existing technologies that we thought together would support learners’ playful scientific interactions. Zydeco is a mobile data capture and analysis tool de­signed to support learners’ scientific inquiry as they move between formal and informal contexts (Kuhn, McNally, Schmoll, & Cahill, 2012). Learners capture data with photos, videos, and audio recordings to an­swer questions posed by teachers or facilitators. Learners then tag their data with short descriptions. In StoryKit, learners create digital storybooks by typing in text, recording sounds, taking pictures, and/or drawing on the device’s touch screen (Bonsignore, Quinn, Dru in, & Bederson, 2013).

Our analysis of these tools in the KC learning environ­ment showed that storytelling can be a natural scaffold and guide for supporting learners’ inquiry practices (Clegg, Bonsignore, Yip, Gelderblom, Kuhn, Valenstein, & Druin, 2012). Telling a story inherently prompted learners to ar­ticulate and reflect on their inquiry process, share their results, and develop claims. Enabling learners to freely in­tegrate photos, text, audio, and drawings in their stories also allowed them to document the personally meaningful aspects of their experiences. Such free-form integration of media also helped learners incorporate personal designs and touches to their scientific contributions. Features of Zydeco, such as tagging data, helped learners to quickly reflect on their experiences, without hindering activity in the physical environment. Tagging also enabled learners to group data in meaningful ways, which later helped them reflect on their experiences and make inferences. This initial work illustrated the importance of striking a balance between the structure needed to support scientific practices and the freedom needed to support learners’ personally meaningful experiences. We found that tagging and storytelling features in mobile apps offered an effec­tive balance between the two (Clegg et al., 2012).

SINQ: Social Media for Social, Scientific Inquiry

Next, we designed a social media tool to specifically support learners’ collaborative scientific inquiry (procedural and conceptual understanding and social interactions) in everyday life contexts (Ahn, Gubbels, Kim, & Wu, 2012). SJNQ (Science JNQuiry) enabled learners to make micro contributions to the inquiry process (see Figure 1). For example: one learner might create a question; another might pose a hypothesis; yet another might suggest an investigation or experiment to carry out to test the hypothesis. Learners’ posts could then be shared publicly on the site and others can vote on the scientific quality of each post.

SINQ invited learners to vote up questions by prompt­ing them to consider, “do you wonder about this?”; “is this a novel question?”; and “can you relate to this ques­tion?” Such -voting was designed to establish norms of scientific quality in the environment (Ahn et al., 2012). SINQ then supported learners as they aggregated micro- contributions into collaborative projects that told a story of an investigation.

We used SINQ in a 12-week after-school implementa­tion of KC to support learners’ development of choice day cooking investigations. We found that 5/NQ facilitated scientific communication among learners, particularly those who had difficulties communicating in face-to-face environments due to prior personal relationships and par­ticipation styles (Clegg, Yip, Ahn, Bonsignore, Gubbels, Lewittes, & Rhodes, 2013). Additionally, SINQ provided a community repository of learners’ contributions over time and allowed learners multiple entry points into the in­quiry process. For example, some learners had a wealth of ideas for new questions and investigations, while others preferred to build onto the ideas of others. SINQ supported and recognized both types of contributions. Our findings suggest that social media can support learn­ers’ development of social interactions around science by enabling them to come together at opportune times.

ScienceKit: Social Media for Playful Scientific Expression

Building on our findings from the previous studies, we designed ScienceKit to help learners have integrated ex­periences across all four building blocks of disposition (see Figure 2). ScienceKit is a mobile and social app that allows learners to capture and share snippets of daily life-similar to social media tools such as Instagram-but frames these sharing practices through a lens of scientific inquiry (Ahn, Clegg, Yip, Bonsignore, Pauw, Gubbels, … , Rhodes, 2014). In ScienceKit, learners create entries with their choice of photos, videos, text, or drawings. With these media, they develop questions, observations, exper­iment sequences, cause and effect claims, or “just be­cause” entries. These entries are shared on a sequential, public timeline for friends to view. Learners can then “star” contributions as a means of “favoriting” them.

We used ScienceKit throughout KC in a weeklong summer camp (see Figure 3). In a multiple case study of two focal learners–one fifth-grader who was quite social and one fourth-grader who was more reticent–we found that ScienceKit helped both learners have integrated ex­periences across the building blocks of disposition (Clegg, Bonsignore, Ahn, Yip, Pauw, Gubbels, … , Rhodes, 2014). ScienceKit enabled the outgoing learner to assume the role of a social reporter (i.e., capturing the experiences of the group), making science more socially relevant. He developed a community rapport throughout the week for his socially engaging, playful scientific posts. He also developed an interest in asking his own new questions through ScienceKit, which led to a highly personal inves­tigation to perfect his mom’s fried chicken recipe.

The social learner used ScienceKit to express his confi­dence and satisfaction with his personally meaningful investigation. Our reticent learner used ScienceKit to communicate with others about the science he was think­ing about privately. His building blocks were integrated as he used ScienceKit to make personal connections between KC and his interest in the video game Minecraft. He used ScienceKit throughout the program to document the scientific processes he was engaged and interested in. His drawings and posts in ScienceKit sparked interested conversations between this quiet learner and the facilita­tors that would not have been possible without the app.

In essence, learners used ScienceKit to connect their peer interactions, interests, hobbies, and family life to science. Our analysis suggests that social media and scientific apps can help learners connect science to their personal lives, particularly via capturing and shar­ing of multiple forms of media (e.g., photos, video, text, drawing).

Mobile and Social Tools for Supporting Playful Expressions of Science

Across these studies, we have seen the power of mobile and social tools for supporting youth’s playful expressions of science. Our findings specifically suggest that such expressions play a key role in promoting learners’ devel­opment across the building blocks of disposition. Learners’ playful interactions within our LRL technologies have helped them interweave social, interest-based, and personally meaningful experiences with science.

Our work also illustrates the importance of considering context in the design of playful media tools. Specifically, we believe learners need playful physical and social en­vironments to most effectively support their scientizing. In each of our studies, we observed the powerful role the learning context could play in promoting or hindering learners’ free-form playful expressions of science. Specifically, we have seen that both children and adults often need help feeling comfortable engaging in (and promoting) playful expressions of science to facilitate disposition development (Clegg et al., 2014).

Likewise, playful expressions of science must be supported by playful technologies that enable both the flexibility for learners to engage in their own ways and the structure for supporting learners’ scientific practices. We have found participatory design with children to be key for designing technologies to move towards this balance. In our first study, participatory design informed our understanding of the features of LRL technologies learners wanted and liked (e.g., tagging, storytelling) (Clegg et al., 2012).

Through the iterative design of SINQ with child design partners, we discovered the types of scientific inquiry questions learners cared about and the language they used to ask them (Ahn et al., 2014). Our participatory design process also uncovered ways to facilitate social media interactions that prompt more scientific engage­ment (Clegg et al., 2014). By partnering with children in the design and iterative development of ScienceKit, we have learned the types of technology-supported interac­tions needed in the context of LRL activities and the types of features that would prompt learners to share their daily life experiences and relate them to science (Yip et al., 2014).

Our next steps involve extending the use of ScienceKit to new environments and settings to promote playful expression and social scientific experiences across the contexts of learners’ lives (e.g., home, school, commu­nity). Such community-based scientizing calls for new community-oriented tools. Thus, we are designing community displays that are tangible and interactive to be placed in common neighborhood settings (e.g., school, community center). Community members will be able to use these displays to view and interact with learners’ ScienceKit contributions. Interactions include voting, requesting additional information, suggesting new investigations, and posing hypotheses in response to learners ScienceKit contributions.

Promoting learners’ scientific inquiry as they move about their neighborhoods also necessitates a joint under­standing between learners, teachers, informal educators, and parents of the importance of playful expressions of science. We are therefore working with these stakehold­ers in two U.S. neighborhoods to develop this under­standing and establish values, norms, and practices for such playful expressions of science. As we continue to take a participatory design approach with learners and community members, we are embarking on the design of community tools needed to promote scientizing prac­tices throughout an entire neighborhood.


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Tamara Clegg is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership in the College of Education and College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Her work focuses on developing technology to support life-relevant learning where children engage in science in the context of achieving personally relevant goals. June Ahn is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education and College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on the design, use, and evaluation of learning technologies, including the use of social media for learning, online education, and blended learning. Jason C. Yip is an Assistant Professor of digital youth at the Information School at the University of Washington. He is also a Joan Ganz Cooney Research Fellow at Sesame Workshop. His research focuses on the design and implementation of new technologies to support learning and participatory cultures within children and families. Elizabeth Bonsignore is a PhD student in the College of Informational Studies at the University of Maryland. Her work focuses on designing technology-mediated experiences that promote personal expression and participatory literacies–supporting learners efforts to integrate their everyday funds of knowledge as bridges to higher levels of participation in society. Daniel Pauw is a graduate student in the College of Informational Studies at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on development and use of technology to better our understanding of life-relevant learning.



Narrative in Instructional Design Copyright © 2018 by TAMARA CLEGG, JUNE AHN, JASON C. YIP, ELIZABETH BONSIGNORE, and DANIEL PAUW. All Rights Reserved.

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