Engagement | Paulette Vincent-Ruz


Paulette Vincent-Ruz is a soon-to-be Assistant Professor in Chemistry Education Research at New Mexico State University. To learn more about her perspective on engagement, we talked with Paulette (when she was a Student Researcher in Learning Sciences and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh) and Chris Schunn, Professor of Psychology, Learning Sciences and Policy, and Intelligent Systems at the University of Pittsburgh – to hear how they define and evaluate engagement in their work. You can watch this short video, download the full transcript, and get highlights from the interview below.

“It’s really important to know whether the setting or the activity that they’re experiencing is actually affecting the way they perceive themselves (as scientists or not), or the way they perceive themselves as accomplishing certain activities or not. I think that’s the value of studying engagement.”
– Paulette Vincent-Ruz, Assistant Professor in Chemistry Education Research at New Mexico State University

2018 Interview Highlights:

What specific projects have you done that focused on or included aspects of engagement?
Paulette: We’ve studied how the prior ideas that students have impact the way they engage in specific moments in time. So if they have high science interest, are they more likely to be engaged during certain activities? Or if they have low science interest, are they more likely to be disconnecting from the activity at that point in time?

How and why do you think engagement matters for science learning or science communication? 
Paulette: Studying the in-the-moment reaction of students is really important, because they may come into our activities with prior ideas about science, interests, or belief in their competencies, but when they’re doing certain activities in a place that is new to them, they might feel that they don’t belong in that place. That’s especially the case if they belong to minority groups like girls or certain racial minorities. 

What advice would you give practitioners who want to integrate your findings about engagement into their work?
Paulette: I think that often engagement is seen as a does-it-work-or-not kind of approach. I think that if we truly want formal and informal experiences to change the way learners perceive science and their own trajectories in science, we really need to start looking more at the “for whom” aspect of it and how people have differential interpretations of the same experience. Girls overall won’t have the same experiences as boys; there are components related to people’s family life, their race, and their past experiences that will influence the way they are engaging in a certain activity. We are looking for those sorts of differences and understanding how learners experience something differently will allow us to make changes that will have a huge impact on learners.

Is there anything else about engagement in science learning that you would like to share?
Paulette: I think one of the things that we have seen consistently is how past attitudes are not likely to change fast. Attitudes like whether [participants] are interested, and whether they feel like they can do science or not, have a huge impact on how they engage, and that is something we usually don’t think about. We sometimes think that just making something fun or free choice is going to automatically allow them to be cognitively or affectively engaged, when in truth they have such a long background of prior experiences that affect their engagement now. Maybe they went to a museum where they had a bad experience, and then they come to your library or your school and they carry the background of this experience, but you don’t even know they have it. It’s really hard to design for that, but we have constantly found that it matters… In the same way we’re also not sure how to fit social engagement in the package. We don’t know if engaging socially should be something separate or should even be part of the way we conceptualize [engagement], because the way it’s measured right now is really personal. Are you happy? Are you engaged? Are you thinking about the activity? Those questions don’t consider how teens are working together or how students are collaborating. The maker movement often matches people up to have someone with experience working with someone who does not have experience. We don’t have a good way to measure that kind of interaction to determine whether those interactions between people are truly productive or not. Again, if you’re just observing, you may think that they’re talking in an engaged way and one of them is explaining while the other is following instructions, but you truly don’t know how if it is working or not. I think that’s another thing that people are starting to talk about, but we still don’t have a good consistent way of studying it, looking at it, and understanding the impact it has on activities.

Download full interview

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