Ala Samarapungavan


About Me (Bio): 
My research focuses on reasoning and learning in science from childhood through adulthood. I am interested in developmental, cultural, and epistemic aspects of knowledge acquisition in the sciences. I collaborate with public schools in Indiana to help elementary, middle, and high school teachers infuse inquiry into science instruction and to document student learning. I also collaborate with researchers in chemistry, engineering, medicine, and veterinary medicine, on a variety of projects that examine the features of advanced science learning at the college level and beyond. Recently, I have become interested in informal science learning of the kind that occurs from museum field trips. In broad terms, I am interested in how people think and learn in knowledge rich domains. My research focuses on reasoning and learning in science from childhood through adulthood. Within this context, I am interested in several specific research questions: • What is science and how do we engage students in learning / doing science? • What principles and heuristics do people use to evaluate scientific knowledge? • How do people's ideas about the natural world develop and change in the course of formal schooling? • How can people learn to generate and use models of complex physiological systems? My interests in Epistemic Cognition can be traced back to my doctoral research in the 1980s. When I began my doctoral work, the conventional view of young children was that they lacked the cognitive tools (such as the ability to coordinate ideas with evidence) that would allow them to reflect upon, evaluate, and revise scientific ideas. Informed by work in the epistemology of science, the psychology of scientific reasoning, and cognitive development, I embarked upon a program of research to explore children’s developing capacities for epistemic cognition. I explored children’s judgments about what counted as a good or better theory in the context of practical scenarios that drew upon children’s early ideas about how the natural world works. That line of research showed that even young children show an emerging preference for empirically consistent, non-ad hoc, and coherent scientific explanations, when they understand the content of the explanations and when the competing explanations are both plausible based on their prior experience and knowledge. Since then, I have continued to explore aspects of epistemic cognition in children and adults. My recent research has explored the role of content expertise, including methodological expertise, and tacit / informally acquired methodological knowledge, in the epistemic cognition of practicing scientists. This work suggests variations in the epistemic cognition of research scientists as a function of their disciplinary training and expertise. We are currently studying how students develop these more nuance, discipline-specific forms of epistemic cognition through apprenticeship in programs of scientific research.
Purdue University

This exploratory project examines how teachers of second grade students scaffold the development of student conceptual models and their understanding of the nature of scientific models and modeling processes in physical science conceptual areas associated with the particulate nature of matter. This foundational research provides descriptive exemplars that can be shared in both the research literature and in practitioner publications as examples of what cognitively rich pedagogy can achieve.

Concord Consortium

This project will develop a technology-supported, physical science curriculum that will facilitate kindergarten students' conceptual understanding of matter and how matter changes. The results of this investigation will contribute important data on the evolving structure and content of children's physical science models as well as demonstrate children's understanding of matter and its changes.