Authentic Science

“Authentic” science learning is generally considered to be a good thing that might help engage students who are otherwise not interested in science. But … what makes science education authentic? 

I have been thinking a lot about this question because I will be doing some work with students where the conjecture is that authentic science learning will make a difference in how they think of science and how they think of themselves in relation to science. I will be able to make better sense out of what I observe in working with those students if I start with some conceptions about the different ways in which the students’ work might be authentic.

So, I have spent the past few days reading pretty widely about place-based and “authentic” science–jumping from one resource to another–to see how educators and researchers use and define the term. Not surprisingly, writers sometimes use the term without saying what they think it means. (Isn’t it obvious? It means AUTHENTIC for heaven’s sake!) In other cases, the treatment is deeply rooted in school culture, in terms of, for example, “ways to add authenticity to science tasks” (Lee & Songer, 2003, p. 926). Such articles may usefully point to pedagogical challenges and pitfalls associated with bringing scientists and their work into the classroom, but they don’t help in my quest to understand just what it is that is authentic about authentic science learning experiences.

What follows is a brief summary of 3 views of “authentic science learning,” followed by a reminder about why and how school science often falls short of the mark.

Authentic Science is Doing the Things Professional Scientists Do

Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989), in an influential, much cited paper, approach the question by considering learning “as a process of enculturation” (p. 34). The idea is that scientists, mathematicians, attorneys, nurses, and so on all work within cultures in which there are shared beliefs about what is true, how one establishes what is accepted to be true, what comprises good practice, the goals of good practice, and so on.

The activities of a domain are framed by its culture. Their meaning and purpose are socially constructed through negotiations among present and past members. Activities thus cohere in a way that is, in theory, if not always in practice, accessible to members who move within the social framework. These coherent, meaningful, and purposeful activities are authentic, according to the definition of the term we use here. Authentic activities then, are most simply defined as the ordinary practices of the culture. (p. 34)

Authentic Science is Useful Science

Van Eijck and Roth (2009), in their ethnographic case study of “Brad,” an Aboriginal student engaged in a science internship, characterize the thinking by Brown, et al. (1989) as asserting that authentic learning experiences are those where “students of mathematics, science, or history engage in activities that bear considerable family resemblance with the activities in which scientists, mathematicians, or historians normally are engaged” (p. 615). They go on to argue that the positivist discourse and competitive culture of science as currently practiced may tend to exclude women and people of other cultures that have different epistemological commitments. This issue arose in their case study, since First Nations people in Canada may seek to learn and use science as one way of knowing that they couple with other ways of knowing to take a more wholistic view of nature. Consequently, Van Eijck and Roth focus their thinking about authenticity more on the use of science rather than on the culture of science, defining  “authentic science experiences as participation in any form of activity where science is also brought to bear on decision-making, as long as this activity is real rather than artificial” (p. 633).

Authentic Science is Science that is Changed by the Students’ Participation

Van Eijck and Roth’s (2009) work is framed in terms of activity theory as developed by Engeström (2008, 2015) and others. In activity theory, the actors are understood to be influenced by the culture(s) within which they are acting but are also understood to be changing those cultures as they act. Van Eijck and Roth (2009) use this conception as another way to define authentic science: “authentic science experiences are those in which participants are provided the opportunity to participate through actions that entail changes in these practices and therewith produce and reproduce the practices rather than only observe them” (p. 634).  In the case that Van Eijck and Roth present, Brad’s work in the culture of conservation science at a nature center shapes his actions and his understanding of the world, as does his existence as a member of a First Nations band. But Brad’s work at the nature center, where he brought an increased focus on native plants and their uses, also changed the culture of the center. In this sense, his participation was active, making a difference, and so was authentic participation.

It is interesting to note that this notion of authenticity, where impacts of actions are reciprocal, with participants shaping what the project is and what it can be as well as being shaped by their participation, is closely related to thinking by McCallie, et al. (2008) in their report on public engagement with science and informal science education. They write:

Public Engagement with Science in terms of informal science education refers to activities, events, or interactions characterized by mutual learning—not one-way transmission from “experts” to publics—among people of varied backgrounds, scientific expertise, and life experiences who articulate and discuss their perspectives, ideas, knowledge, and values. A PES activity may—but does not necessarily—directly inform the direction of scientific investigations, institutions, and/or science policy. (p.18)

Authentic Science is Not School Science

Definitions of authentic science learning often distinguish it from what typically happens in school, defining it in part by what it is not.  For example, Brown, et al. (1989), in focusing on authenticity as connection to a professional culture, note that offering such activities within schools often results in a mismatch: “School activity too often tends to be hybrid, implicitly framed by one culture, but explicitly attributed to another. Classroom activity very much takes place within the culture of schools, although it is attributed to the culture of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, economists, geographers, and so forth.” (p. 34).

Van Eijck and Roth (2009) make a similar point as they explain why Brad’s internship was authentic: “The outcomes of these practices served practical and meaningful aims in other practices and did not end up as dummies for the sake of engaging and assessing people in the practice in which they were produced (such as often happens in schooling).”

So … ?

I am trying to understand what “authentic science learning” might be, rather than trying to come up with a normative or a priori definition. In other words, I do not have to choose between these different understandings of the concept, but instead can use them to sensitize me to things I might observe. More quantitatively, you can think of these conceptions as different factors that might emerge in a factor analysis of the concept.


  • Situated learning, or what Lave and Wenger (1991) call “legitimate peripheral participation” in scientific work and practice, may contribute to students’ perception that the work is meaningful and authentic. The presence of working scientists, careful attention to protocols, use of scientific tools, and use of science’s epistemological stance toward evidence and argument may all contribute to the sense of legitimacy and authenticity. It may be possible to tease apart the relative importance of these different features of the work in terms of their contribution to student engagement.
  • The usefulness of the work may contribute to perceived authenticity. I hope to explore the differential importance of “usefulness to the scientist” and “usefulness to the students’ community.” I don’t expect to be able to fully separate those effects; I would be pleased to come away with insights into how I might separate them in future work.
  • Engagement of students as authentic participants, where they can see that their participation is affecting the outcomes and direction of the work, is another kind of authenticity that deserves attention.  It may be that some students are more successful at this than others, which would provide an opportunity to see if such differences are associated with other changes in learning or perspective.

Questions for Readers

Do these conceptions of “authentic science learning” match up in some way with your experience?

Do you have different ideas about what makes science learning authentic?


Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

Engeström, Y. (2008). From teams to knots: Activity-theoretical studies of collaboration and learning at work. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. (2015). Learning by Expanding: An Activity-Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, H.-S., & Songer, N. B. (2003). Making authentic science accessible to students. International Journal of Science Education, 25(8), 923–948.

McCallie, E., Bell, L., Lohwater, T., Falk, J. H., Lehr, J., Lewenstein, B., et al. (2009). Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education. Retrieved from

van Eijck, M., & Roth, W.-M. (2009). Authentic science experiences as a vehicle to change students’ orientations toward science and scientific career choices: Learning from the path followed by Brad. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 4(3), 611–638.

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5 Responses to Authentic Science

  1. Jenn Page says:

    Great post Bill! Defining “authentic” experiences in the context of science education is obviously not a straightforward task and I appreciate your conclusion that a multi-faceted approach provides the richest understanding of what we mean by “authentic”. As both a classroom educator and as a Director of Education for a non-profit, I have consistently found that all of the aspects mentioned ring true but the one that I have found has the greatest impact is when students feel that the work they are doing matters, i.e., when they ‘change’ or otherwise contribute meaningfully to the scientific field through their work. Too often students are discouraged or disillusioned by participating in “science” that confirms what is already known or it is too watered down for them to feel that their contributions have any meaning outside ‘the classroom’. The process of creating opportunities for students to contribute to the greater scientific community inherently encompasses the other aspects that you mentioned and further illustrates why a multi-faceted understanding of “authenticity” is so important as we strive to provide these experiences to students. Thank you for such a great set of musings and references for this topic!


  2. Thanks Bill and Jenn — stimulating thoughts about an important issue. I want to build on Jenn’s point about “…creating opportunities for students to contribute to a greater body”, and Bill’s about the multi-faceted nature of authenticity.

    Three facets of authenticity in science that Bill describes are culture, purpose, and effect. Science is done in a culture/community that has established practices, towards a clear purpose (problem or previously unknown understanding), and science produces an effect, such as greater understanding or action.

    Authentic Science **Learning** seems to be a slightly different beast than Authentic Science. Is it learning that mimics authentic science (irony noted), or learning that moves students towards authentic science experiences? Maybe authentic science learning is a spectrum of activities (learning experiences) that move students towards learning that takes place in a scientific setting (whether in school or out of school), has an open-ended purpose — question or problem to solve — and that has the potential to produce an effect (useful knowledge or action). The last two really are strong motivators for students, as Jenn points out. It’s harder to recreate an authentic culture of science inside school walls, but the culture aspect does seem important.

    One would not expect all science learning to be fully authentic experiences at first (they aren’t for graduate students either), but it would be ideal if students have opportunity to progress towards authentic science experiences, in school and out of school (e.g. at Hurricane Island, or summer research internships, or as part of a student-teacher-scientist partnership, or a mentored capstone experience, much as a research thesis and publication are goals for graduate students). The key may be having a clear idea of where we are steering younger students — towards a body of NGSS knowledge and practices, or towards something beyond that e.g. authentic science experience? It might mean having progressively more “authentic” experiences available just as soon as students are ready for them — including ones that may be beyond the realistic reach of classrooms.


  3. MCWittmann says:

    Hi Bill, I just sent you an email with a link, but in the interests of other readers seeing the relevant parts, here are the comments, again, lightly edited for clarity:

    Wow, I have no idea where to start. In part, this suggests to me that the term itself is too broad. How can one possibly make sense of it?! Especially when the meaning of scientific work is so different from discipline to discipline (Michelle in bio education research and I in physics education research have different standards of what it means, for example, just from our cultures of bio and physics), I find it hard to imagine how to make sense of it all.

    But when I approach the question and ask what I consider to be authentic science (and how I represent it in my field), I reach back to the past 20 years of my own work and those who have influenced me. In particular, David Hammer has written extensively on some of the difficulties of teaching in an authentic way. His approach is less on being authentic to science than on being authentic to students – not sure if that makes sense, but it’s the intersection of those two which he (and I) find so interesting. While others focus on science, practically a philosophy of science approach, he uses a quote by Einstein to guide his work:

    “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”

    So: what is everyday thinking? how do we refine it? Is that not the authentic practice of science (and the thing to promote most, for those who will not become scientists)? Repeatedly, this comes down to the topic of epistemology: how do you know what you know, why do you believe it to be true? (That Michelle and I differ as we do is often a question of the guiding epistemologies of bio and physics, for example.)

    I’m including a few papers you might enjoy (citations below). The Discovery Teaching and Discovery Learning paper is deep within the dilemma of how we teach, and what we teach for. Three more are from a conference a dozen years ago, focused on our responses to the meaning of “everyday thinking” and how to refine it. And the fifth is a question of what this turns into in broader brush strokes – how does one’s epistemological framing of a situation determine what can and cannot be known and learned in a given moment.

    Hammer, D. (1997). Discovery Learning and Discovery Teaching. Cognition and Instruction, 15(4), 485–529.

    Hammer, D. (2004). The Variability of Student Reasoning , Lecture 1 : Case Studies of Children ’ s Inquiries. In E. F. Redish & M. Vicentini (Eds.), Proceedings of the Enrico Fermi Summer School in Physics, Course CLVI (pp. 321–340). Bologna: Italian Physical Society.

    Hammer, D. (2004). The Variability of Student Reasoning , Lecture 2 : Transitions. Physics. In E. F. Redish & M. Vicentini (Eds.), Proceedings of the Enrico Fermi Summer School in Physics, Course CLVI (pp. 321–340). Bologna: Italian Physical Society.

    Hammer, D. (2004). The Variability of Student Reasoning, Lecture 3 : Manifold Cognitive Resources. In E. F. Redish & M. Vicentini (Eds.), Proceedings of the Enrico Fermi Summer School in Physics, Course CLVI (pp. 321–340). Bologna: Italian Physical Society.

    Hammer, D., Redish, E. F., Elby, A., & Scherr, R. E. (2005). Resources, framing, and transfer. In J. P. Mestre (Ed.), Transfer of Learning: Research and Perspectives (pp. 1–26). incollection, Information Age Publishing.


  4. Ivan Fernandez sent me an email with the following comments … and gave me permission to share them here ….
    Thanks. I learned a lot in reading this interesting piece. Perhaps the one thought I had worth sharing is that of course all the facets mentioned seem to enhance authenticity in the student experience. However, I think I see a lot of progress and emphasis on experiential learning, student research, the scientific approach, data literacy, but it is very hard to achieve balance with true professional experience. That is, I think some of these HS science students do remarkable work in developing their own project and reporting out on it. However, they either know or think that their work is not ‘real’ in that it matters the way the science of real scientists matters.

    The flip side is the genuine professional experience, where a student might be doing the most mundane task, but they know they are part of the real science that has real impacts on the world (or not, but that is another issue). Whether in the field or in the lab, that whole genuine professional experience seems to work because of the larger ‘real’ context. I say this thinking about the many dozens of undergraduate student workers I have employed doing weighing and dish washing and other boring tasks, but they see all the pieces all around them, including the talks and papers, and I always try to make sure I talk about the connection to either a management or policy issue that was influenced by that science. I can talk about soils in wetlands all day, but it doesn’t hold a candle to them carrying a sample bag following a professional actually delineating a wetland for a paid service. That kind of opportunity is so hard to provide.


  5. Pingback: Inquiring Into How Authentic Science Learning Works | Thinking About Schools

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