Over the past two decades, psychologists have found increasing evidence that experiencing the emotion of awe can bring about a shift in perspective that reorients us toward contexts that are much greater than ourselves.
For science educators who wish to help learners understand humans as participants within a variety of vast, interconnected systems, these findings suggest compelling implications about the potential of awe as a pedagogical tool. But as anyone who has been a teacher can tell you, classrooms are complex, messy, and unpredictable places – the exact opposite of a research laboratory. So how do these empirical findings translate into authentic learning environments?
Several years ago, as part of my dissertation research, I spent six weeks embedded in two summer programs for adolescents, both of which were described as including a humanistic framing of the scientific content intended to help students make connections to the “big picture.” I was there to investigate how students engaged with a science learning experience that was designed to facilitate an understanding of their relationship to, and role within, broader natural and societal systems. I also wanted to explore the ways that experiences of awe might help direct students’ attention toward their own role as participants within the vast, complex, and interconnected systems they were studying. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research, I presented my findings from each site in detail. In what follows, I’d like to briefly summarize the results, and then focus on what they mean for us as science educators and communicators.
Findings from a genetics and biotechnology lab course at “Darby Summer Institute”
Both of my research sites were residential summer programs set on college campuses. The first class I observed, a genetics and biotechnology lab course for rising high school juniors, was housed within “Darby Summer Institute” (pseudonyms are used throughout this piece), a multi-year summer program for local low-income high school students. The instructor whose class I observed told me that her priority was to help students “understand the nature of scientific discovery … and to be critical thinkers and informed citizens in society.” At the same time, she saw this program as an opportunity for her students to catch up to their peers in more well-resourced schools. a lot of time was spent helping the students develop practical skills like taking lecture notes and working with lab equipment.
In my conversations with DSI students, I found that they had a hard time articulating a definition of awe – two of them initially thought I meant “aww,” as in “how cute!” – but many of them demonstrated the emotion implicitly through their engagement with matters of scale and complexity, especially in their reflection journals. For example, as one student wrote in response to a textbook passage about the quantity of the nitrogen bases that make up the DNA in our body:
I am truly amazed. That is a large amount of bases! I think that it is really interesting to consider the amount of time and effort that such tiny parts of our bodies do to contribute, just to keep us alive. I know our cells are just microscopic parts of ourselves and they don’t actually technically ‘work’ on anything, but, I still have a newfound appreciation for the way the body works to keep itself (and ourselves) running.
I also found that DSI students tended to identify implications of the course content on a global level rather than at a personal level. They would discuss the ways that a scientific phenomenon might affect the ecosystem or matter to global health, but they rarely acknowledged or commented on their role as individual actors that existed within natural systems, even when I asked about it explicitly. Instead, they tended to view the phenomena they were studying as abstract or removed from themselves.
For instance, one student told me, “I mean, I know [these biological processes] exist inside my body. I didn’t think of it like that, though. Not when I was learning it, at least. It was just like a broad idea or concept of something.” She went on to explain that she did not think she had the “mindset” to notice these types of connections to her own body or personal experience.
Findings from a course on cosmic evolution at the “Summer Session at Gifford University”
My other research site was part of the “Summer Session at Gifford University” (SSGU), which has a residential program for high schoolers but is also open to college undergraduates. I observed a lecture and discussion-based course on cosmic evolution, which offered an interdisciplinary “long-view” approach to science that started with the Big Bang and ended with human consciousness.
As described on the syllabus, the course was not designed to prepare students for higher-level college science, “but it may change your life.” The instructor told me that one of his main goals was to get students thinking about the implications of the content for sustainability and ecological health. As he explained, “the story of the universe and the story of the environment and our addressing its problems [are] really integrated.”
When I spoke to the SSGU students, they gave fairly nuanced and complex definitions of awe, though it’s not clear whether that’s because they had more experience with the emotion than their peers in DSI, or because they had access to the language to articulate it. As one student explained, awe is “when I’m just kind of dumbfounded at the grandeur of anything at all … I just have to keep going, and searching for these answers.”
I also found that, over the course of instruction, SSGU students generally came to see themselves as individual actors in natural systems. Perhaps because they had this lens of personal agency, SSGU students generally focused on the implications of the content solely at a personal level, despite their professor’s intentions for getting them to think about the bigger picture implications for global sustainability. As one student, a music major, told me:
I can think more about just how infinitesimally small the earth is in the grander scheme of things. It recontextualizes everything that we’re doing here. And I think especially as, you know, the only thing that I really am studying is the saxophone, which is an extremely small piece of an extremely small planet. This class is changing my perspective as far as how much more there is than just the saxophone, [which is] definitely exciting, but I’m still not where I want to be with the saxophone. So I figure, get that where I want it to be first, and then worry about the universe.
Why does this matter for practice?
To conclude, I would like to highlight three main takeaways that I think are relevant for educators and communicators of science:
1) Additional opportunities for reflection are useful for learning and assessment as well as research.
The kinds of data I collected in this study gave me insights into students’ thinking that in some cases went beyond the information the instructors could access. For instance, the data enabled me to identify moments where awe and other strong emotions were elicited, and to investigate how students reacted to and made sense of that emotionally evocative instruction. Information of this nature would be useful to educators who are attempting to design instruction to evoke awe. Teachers may wish to consider using journals, one-on-one student conversations, or other means of collecting this sort of information from their own students in order to guide their own practice. To the extent that it’s possible, creators and facilitators of informal learning experiences and other opportunities for public engagement with science might also seek to gauge emotional responses from learners and use this to inform future iterations of the design.
2) Learners would benefit from further guidance to identify opportunities to apply their understanding to new contexts.
Across both sites, I found that students’ responses to awe experiences were much more likely to occur at the level of shifts in perspective than changes in behavior. I observed very few instances in the instruction at either site where students were explicitly told how they could or should apply the course content apart from deepening their understanding, nor were they prompted to reflect on this idea for themselves. This is important, because while prior empirical research has shown that experiencing awe can make people more inclined to behave in prosocial ways, those inclinations can dissipate pretty quickly in the real world if we don’t see a path to action. The findings from this study suggest that educators should find ways to capitalize on moments of awe and use those moments as opportunities to explicitly discuss the implications for human behavior. In other words, we should be reminding learners about the ways that they can contribute productively to natural systems at the moment when they are most likely to feel a deep, emotional sense of care and concern for those systems.
3) Differences in how students at each site reflected on their learning must be understood through the lens of equity and access.
In general, SSGU students were highly inclined to reflect on the deep, existential questions provoked by the course content, and their descriptions of feeling simultaneously insignificant and connected to something larger are well aligned with experiences documented in the research literature. However, these reflections were less likely to extend to humanity or the environment, despite the course goals of making connections to sustainability. Conversely, DSI students did not tend to frame their understanding of the course content in terms of its relation to themselves as individuals and reported less frequent experiences of awe, yet they were generally more inclined to discuss implications for public health and sustainability.
SSGU students were, on average, 1-2 years older than the students at DSI, so it is possible that students’ developmental stage contributed to the level of nuance with which they were able to understand and discuss the concept of awe and other complex topics relevant to this study. Perhaps more important than this age difference, however, was the relative privilege of the students enrolled at each program. Most, if not all, of the students at SSGU held significantly greater socioeconomic and cultural capital than the students at DSI, and this fact should inform how we make sense of the observed differences between students at the two sites.
For instance, it was probably not a coincidence that I observed the DSI instructor pushing a pragmatic stance for her students to think about what they needed to do now in order to make science a viable career choice for them down the road, whereas the students in SSGU were treating their program as a luxury – an opportunity to spend their summer contemplating the wonders of the universe. It’s clear that these two groups of students have had substantively different life experiences – and, presumably, different expectations and goals for how science can and should factor into their future lives as adults. It is likely that these differences in experience and perspective interacted in meaningful ways with instruction that was designed to orient students toward their place within the broader world. As we seek to design awe-inspiring science experiences, we cannot fail to acknowledge the role that economic stability and societal privilege play in empowering individuals to take a step back from daily concerns and reflect on their place in the universe.
Note: The research paper summarized in this blog post is published in the Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research. This is a print-only journal; if you are interested in a PDF version of the article, please contact Megan Cuzzolino directly at megan_cuzzolino [at] gse.harvard.edu.