The role of language in building common ground in a science museum

Conference Paper

This study aims at analyzing how science museum educators use language in order to build common ground with 8th grade students in school visits. Data was collected by audio-recorded conversations between students and science museums educators at two exhibits about light. One of the exhibits reproduces Newton’s optical crucial experiment and the other compares the transmission of light in three media (optical fiber, water and oil). The exhibits for data collection were selected by the science museum educators who, based on their experiences, considered these exhibits as those in which more conversation is often generated. The conversations were transcribed and analyzed. The corpus of analysis is composed by 26 verbal interactions between a museum educator and a student or a group of students. Data were analyzed by considering the lexicon used in the construal of concepts, the networks of concepts associated with a given scientific idea, the metaphorical language employed, and the joint activities in the conversation. The analysis shows that: a) science museum educators employ a hybrid lexicon, in which non-specific lexicon prevails over lexicon with specific semantics in optics; b)some elements of the networks of concepts, associated with optical fiber and white light, are not scientifically valid; c) metaphorical language, grounded in experiences from everyday life, was employed to convey ideas about light transmission in optical fiber, light propagation, and colour; and d) joint activity through language is cooperative in nature, holds affective elements, is dominated and initiated by educators, is built on educators’ goals, i.e. explaining key ideas underlying the exhibits and interpersonal goals. Results show that while there are efforts to build common grounds between participants in the conversation, sometimes they are compromised as the concepts conveyed do not always match the scientific concepts. Some recommendations for enhancing the building of common grounds are provided.
FCT, through the project UID/CED/1661/2016.

Susana Afonso
Francisco Manuel Estanislau Azevedo Rodrigues


Year of publication: 2017


Alternative Titles