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A Discourse Perspective on the Learning of Biotechnology

Licentiate thesis
Authors Anne Solli
Date of public defense 2012-09-13
Opponent at public defense Ralph Levinson, Department of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment, University of London, England
Publisher Chalmers University of Technology
Place of publication Göteborg
Publication year 2012
Published at
Language en
Keywords Discourse analysis, higher education, biotechnology, socio-scientific issues.
Subject categories Educational Sciences


Analyses of how students and a professor in an introductory university biotechnology course justify and evaluate knowledge claims considering GM food are reported in this licentiate thesis. In the public discussion of Genetically Modified (GM) food the representations of science as a social good, conducted in the public interest to solve major problems are being subjected to intense scrutiny and questioning. Scientists working in these areas have been seen to struggle for the position of science in society. Few in situ studies of how the debate about science appears in learning situations at the university level have been undertaken. In the present study an introductory course in biotechnology was observed during one semester, lectures and small group supervision concerning GM food were videotaped and student´s reports on the issue were collected. The ethnographic approach to discourse analysis was conducted by means of a set of carefully selected and representative observations of how a group of students learn to argue and appropriate views held in the Discourse they are enculturated into. While socio-scientific issues (SSIs) are often associated with achieving scientific literacy in terms of “informed decisions” involving “rational thought and discourse” this study shows that SSI in practice, in the context studied here, is primarily concerned with using scientific language to privilege professional understandings of GMOs and discredit public worries and concerns. Scientific claims were privileged over ethical, economical and political claims which were either made irrelevant or rebutted. During the course certain positive properties and qualities such as accuracy and efficiency are attributed by the participants to scientific practices, and the case for biotechnology was established in response to criticisms originating from other, competing authorities. The students were seen to appropriate a Discourse model held within the biotechnological community, that the introduction of the more robust, healthier and environmentally friendlier GM crops is impaired by public skepticism due to insufficient knowledge, and by regulations disadvantageous to GMO crops. The present study offers insights into biotechnology students’ decision making regarding socio-scientific issues, while also demonstrating the utility of discourse analysis for understanding learning in this university context. Implications for reflection on the institutional discourse of science and teaching of controversial issues in science are drawn and the study contributes to the investigation of claims of scientific literacy coupled to SSIs and argumentation.

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