Using activity theory to understand the systemic tensions characterizing a technology-rich introductory astronomy course

Sasha A. Barab, Michael Barnett, Lisa Yamagata-Lynch, Kurt Squire, Thomas Keating

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

153 Scopus citations


In this report of our research on a computer-based three-dimensional (3-D) modeling course for learning astronomy, we use the central tenets of activity theory to analyze participation by undergraduate students and instructors, illuminating the instances of activity that characterized course dynamics. Specifically, we focus on the relations of participant (student) and object (3-D models and astronomy understandings) and how, in our course, object transformations leading to scientific understandings are mediated by tools (both technological and human), the overall classroom microculture (emergent norms), division of labor (group dynamics and student-instructor roles), and rules (informal, formal, and technical). Through analysis of the data, we interpreted and then focused on two systemic tensions as illuminative of classroom activity. With respect to the first systemic tension, we examined the interplay between learning astronomy and building 3-D models. Results suggested that instead of detracting from the emergence of an activity system that supported learning astronomy, model-building actions frequently coevolved with (were the same as) astronomy-learning actions. With respect to the second tension, we examined the interplay between prespecified, teacher-directed instruction versus emergent, student-directed learning. Our results indicated that it was rarely teacher-imposed nor student-initiated constraints that directed learning; rather, rules, norms, and divisions of labor arose from the requirements of building and sharing 3-D models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)76-107
Number of pages32
JournalMind, Culture, and Activity
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2002
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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