Assistant Professor Tina Grotzer, Ed.M.'85, Ed.D.'93, was recently given a five-year CAREER award by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings, which will allow her to study how children's complex causal reasoning shifts over time and with different learning supports.
"I feel especially honored to receive this award. I have been fortunate to have had previous NSF support for my work, but a CAREER award is special because in addition to the project aspects, it focuses on one's advisory capacity," Grotzer said. "It creates an opportunity for the doctoral students in my lab to pursue these critical questions related to learning about causal complexity and to work at the intersection of cognitive science and educational practice where there's rich potential for making a real difference in education."
Grotzer researches how children's understanding develops in grades K-6. She will study three forms of causal complexity including distributed causality, probabilistic causality, and action at a distance. "Research shows that we don't reason particularly well about causal complexity. We tend to be short-sighted and reduce complex patterns to simpler ones," Grotzer said. "At the same time, there's promising research with young children to show that they may be able to understand more complex forms of cause and effect than we might expect. Most of this work looks at how children's abilities develop without the benefit of instructional support in limited experimental contexts. It is increasingly clear that the processes by which we learn causal patterns every day may not be enough to enable us to deal well with complexity."
Grotzer hopes her research will impact how the next generation reasons about the world they live in. "We can learn to reason better about causal complexity and it is critical that we do so. The world's most pressing problems require it. For instance, understanding topics such as ecosystems and climate change involves reasoning about non-obvious causes, spatial gaps, temporal delays, cyclic causality, and distributed causality where the agency/intentionality of one's actions is on a different level than those of the emergent outcomes," she said. "In the last year of the project, we'll use what we have learned to develop and design ecosystems and global warming curricula to be tested in classrooms."