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UBC Theses and Dissertations

“Finally, I can do it my way.” Students’ experiences of participation, agency, and identity in disciplinary and interdisciplinary undergraduate science Gerhard, Gillian Michelle


This study explores the learning practices that are valued and experienced by students who choose an interdisciplinary science degree, and how these practices contribute to the science-student related identities that are developed through participation in disciplinary and interdisciplinary learning contexts. The study objectives were to investigate undergraduate students’ experiences of participation in disciplinary and interdisciplinary science degree programs. To address these objectives, I carried out a collective case study of 9 undergraduate science students who transferred from the Mainstream science program to the InterScience program in the Faculty of Science at Large Research University. Specifically, between 2004 and 2006, I invited students to share their stories through semi-structured interviews and I listened to the stories that developed through students’ interactions and relations during class. Using socio-cultural theories and narrative research methods, I sought to find, in the stories students shared, the practices in which they engage and through which they claim identity. I analyzed the data using open coding and the constant comparative method. My findings indicate that the InterScience students who participated in my study value learning practices that lead to insights from multiple science disciplines and that facilitate interdisciplinary understanding. Further, these students wanted to approach their learning in a deep way, pursuing their interests and exercising self-determination in their science education. The students found that the structures and pedagogical strategies of Mainstream science limited participation in the practices of interdisciplinary science understanding, whereas the InterScience program structures and pedagogies enabled participation. Consequently, the students developed identities of exclusion and disengagement from Mainstream science and identities of belonging and legitimate peripheral participation with respect to the InterScience program. This research provides evidence and examples of how disciplinary aspects of science learning environments can foster experiences of alienation for students who are oriented towards interdisciplinary ways of knowing. It also shows that by creating a community of integrated science practice, interdisciplinary science degree programs can enable bright and keen, but deeply alienated students who seek interdisciplinary understanding to re-engage with their university and to become passionate advocates for their undergraduate education.

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