Speak Up! Youth’s Cogenerative Dialogues With Scientists

Posted by
Pei-Ling Hsu
October 11, 2017


How can high school students engage more deeply in authentic science learning? One method is by working directly with scientists. However, several inevitable challenges may hinder interaction between students and scientists, such as power dynamics, the complexity of scientific language, and communication barriers. The purpose of this project was to introduce a pedagogical tool, cogenerative dialogues (cogens), designed to cultivate student–scientist partnerships and to investigate the potential impacts that cogens have on high school students’ internship experiences. Now in its final and fourth year, “Transforming Students’ Partnership With Scientists Through Cogenerative Dialogues” was funded by the National Science Foundation (#DRL-1322600). The project, known to participants as the “Work With A Scientist” program, is led by scientists and engineers at the University of Texas at El Paso who collaborate with El Paso Independent School District to support high school students’ STEM learning. 

Major questions pursued in the project include the following:

  1. What topics are discussed during cogens between youth and scientists?

  2. What were youth’s and scientists’ experiences of conducting cogens in the internship?

  3. What are effective strategies to mediate cogens between youth and scientists?

Retention of Economically Disadvantaged Hispanic Youth

The central strategy of this project is to provide informal science internship opportunities to economically disadvantaged Hispanic youth. One major challenge we encountered in the first year of implementation was the youth’s high attrition rate. Each year, the project involved 36 eleventh-graders in working with four scientists’ laboratory teams for seven months. In the first year, students’ attrition rate was 36%. Through discussions during the project’s monthly meetings with different stakeholders, including scientists, school teachers, educational researchers, assistants, and educators, we identified two major problems that might contribute to students’ attrition. First, students might not have fully understood the program timeline and activities when they submitted their applications, or they may have had additional responsibilities during weekends, such as taking care of their families or working at part-time jobs to earn extra family income. To address these issues, we made several modifications to recruitment and internship practices for the second and third cohorts. In response to feedback, we began recruiting students from three Title I high schools (instead of from only one high school). We enriched our recruitment activities by collaborating with school teachers to identify candidates, started our recruitment activities one month earlier, set up a program office in the schools to address students’ questions, and conducted admission interviews with students to understand whether students were committed to completing the seven month internship program. To refine internship practices we started to take attendance and gave out attendance awards for students during the open house events, supported scientists and assistants in paying extra attention and care to students’ attendance, and we encouraged participants to raise issues and obstacles to attendance at cogens for discussion and brainstorming of ideas to support participation. As a result, the attrition rates were greatly reduced, to 13% and 16% for the second and third cohorts respectively.

Collaboration with Scientists

The collaboration with scientists required careful planning and frequent communication. In the first year, scientists expressed that they did not fully understand their commitment to the program and they underestimated the workload of working with high schoolers. After a series of meetings with scientists, the project generated an explicit written agreement and adjusted the resources, including salary, supplies, and assistant help, in order to fully support the scientists’ work with youth. These adjustments greatly increased the scientists’ motivation and commitment to having rich, meaningful interactions with youth. This was especially helpful when our project asked the scientists to conduct cogens with the youth during which scientists might receive constructive feedback on their teaching and mentoring. To create a respectful environment, it was critical that the project leaders listen to the needs of all stakeholders and address them. These findings suggested that careful, inclusive planning and budgeting adjustments were required to facilitate successful project implementation.


Implementation of Cogenerative Dialogues

Another unexpected challenge we encountered was in implementing the cogens. Originally, we proposed to have science teaching assistants, who were either science graduate or undergraduate students serve as cogen mediators during the activities. The purpose of the cogen was to allow all stakeholders equal opportunities to express their ideas and discuss topics that mattered to them in order to improve the quality of internship teaching and learning. However, based on the experiences of the first year, we learned that sometimes these science teaching assistants (or scientists), who possessed more scientific knowledge than the students, would take cogens as an opportunity to lecture the students, generating only one-way communication. Thus, to help cogens function better, for the second and third cohorts, we assigned two education research assistants for each laboratory team. One educational research assistant served as a cogen mediator and the other took charge of data collection (e.g., video recording, field notes). Both educational research assistants received intensive training for mediating cogens and served as liaisons between their laboratory and the program office. Compared to the first year, the quality of cogens in the second and third year was greatly improved in terms of equitable opportunities to express ideas and facilitating the dialogues to foster two-way communication.


Findings Regarding Cogenerative Dialogues Between Youth and Scientists

During cogenerative dialogues, youth and scientists discussed diverse topics that aimed to improve internship teaching and learning, for example, how to improve the quality of [student] scientific practice, student participation, clarity of scientists’/assistants’ instructions, preparation for scientific presentations, administrative support, student peer interactions and communication, and students’ physiological needs. Our findings suggested that cogens could empower students to communicate various issues and brainstorm solutions to improve their internship practice.

The analysis of high school students’ and scientists’ experiences of cogens demonstrated positive evidence that cogens can help youth build a stronger bond with scientists to enhance their science learning. This is an important finding that can inform other student–scientist collaborations. Communication barriers, such as the use of jargon, pace of instruction, depth of knowledge, and use of pedagogical materials, can be addressed through authentic conversations during cogens. Meanwhile, cogens can help STEM professionals to understand individual students’ needs and to provide timely, customized, as-needed support to improve students’ learning, as attested to by participants in this project.

Moreover, we also identified several effective strategies frequently used in cogens to foster dialogues, for example, asking participants to provide rationale and clarification to justify their ideas, providing examples of potential ideas in order to prompt others’, recognizing participants’ ideas positively, translating complex ideas for others, summarizing and organizing thoughts for collective discussion, checking validity and feasibility of hypotheses, and inviting participants to practice taking other stakeholders’ perspectives.


Next Steps

This pioneering project focusing on communications between youth and scientists found that cogens can serve as a useful tool to enrich communication and relationship-building between high school students and scientists. One key takeaway for the field is the importance of clearly communicating expectations and commitments with all stakeholders from a project’s inception.

Our team is currently in the process of submitting journal articles for peer review and writing book chapters on the project, as well as presenting our research at conferences to share our findings on the use of cogens and the impacts of cogens on students’ science learning. These outputs are, or will be available on the project page as they become available.  We are also considering introducing the cogens tool to other mentoring programs. Please send us an email at if you are interested or have questions. We welcome the opportunity to share our work and are open to feedback.