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The third characteristic of a “college-prepared, work-ready” graduate is that he or she can “respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline.” My understanding of that statement is that our graduates must be able to be flexible, not only in their problem-solving, but in the communication of their results. How can artifacts teach flexibility?

No two artifacts are the same. No two approaches to their stories should be the same. We have previously demonstrated that, depending upon the object under study, we would ask the same questions, but employ different approaches in our problem solving. Approaches to answering “What is this?” and “Why is it important?” will depend upon the discipline. If our questions were asked in a chemistry lab, we would start and end differently than if it were asked in a history classroom. For instance, the chemistry student would first formulate a hypothesis and then test it using experiments designed to reveal the answers. The ability to duplicate results would be proof Chem labthat the hypothesis was correct. Here is an example. Suppose that our student was working with a cupel, a shallow cup made of bone ash used in assaying mining ore. After examination of the item, he or she might postulate that the object has something to do with burning or dissolving materials to separate its components. The student would then test for a variety of elements in the residue remaining in the cup in order to determine what chemicals and metals had been used. Repeated results indicating sulphuric or  hydrochloric acids, heavy metals, lead, and heat would lead to the conclusion that this was an item used in assaying. The answer would be communicated using the evidence from experimentation and positive identification of  specific elements. The hypothesis posed and the results achieved and reported are specific to the scientific community, especially chemistry.

If our questions were posed in a history class. The approach and the reporting would be different. Students would use our questions as the starting point and ask additional questions: “Where was this found?”, “When was this made?”, “Who used this item?” The research applied to determine the answers to our questions would involve looking for written descriptions from the time period that detailed its books1use, and dairies that mentioned the item and described its composition and utility. Letters, books, inventories and sales receipts would also provide clues and direction. The same descriptions, instructions and item lists repeated over and over in the sources would indicate its composition and use as an item used in the mining camps to assay ores on site. The answer would be communicated using an argument that would be based on the preponderance of evidence, corroborated from a variety of different sources. The essential questions that drove the research and the reporting of results are specific to the social sciences, especially history.

What is important here, is that both studies came to the same conclusion using an artifact. The methods varied based upon the purpose, the audience, and the discipline. Using a diary entry about a cupel would not be appropriate in a chemistry class. Asking for the elements cupel2contained in the residue would be inappropriate in the history class. Yet, using the same object, the cupel, in both classes is an effective and engaging method to teach the specifics of each discipline, and the differences in the nature of their questions, their evidence, and their reporting of results. It was an object – an artifact – that was the focus in both classes. Objects apply across disciplines to focus investigation and to demonstrate the importance of audience.

Artifacts teach flexibility


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