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5 September 2011
When Deakin University PhD candidate Carolina Castano returned to Australia from Colombia, she came with a 'gift' of knowledge gained from working with disadvantaged children from a school in a suburb in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, where violence and animal cruelty is common.
In Ms Castano's luggage were lessons and pedagogical principles developed and evaluated as part of her PhD thesis, from the School of Education, which looked at the role that science education plays in reducing violence towards others, including animals.
"I have always had an interest and love for animals," she said.
"I consider there is a strong link between the way we relate to animals and the way we relate to people.
"I am passionate about nature and I studied a bachelor degree in biology.
"As I studied I began to realise that the perspective of science towards nature and animals which is taught at the schools and university science programs is often centred in a utilitarian view.
"In other words, animals and nature are valued if they can offer a resource to humans and I consider that view has brought many of the problems in the environment and society which we are currently facing."
During her work as a tutor at Deakin University, she had the chance to observe science classes at schools in Australia and she realised things were no different here.
"I wanted to challenge that thinking and view on animals," she said.
"I want to challenge the way science is often taught and to explore if there is any link between the way science is taught and the values and attitudes towards humans and animals it promotes."
While Ms Castano found there was growing evidence in other fields to support her contention, the amount of research in the education field was limited.
"I initially used the information from research done in other fields to develop a theoretical framework for the intervention I designed and then put it into practice in Colombia," she said.
"I decided to do it in Colombia since I have worked there as a school teacher and have witnessed highly violent situations not only in several communities and towns but also in school settings; so I thought my study would be highly relevant to those more marginalised and disadvantaged communities and with children who were exposed to high levels of violence."
Ms Castano explained that in disadvantaged communities in Bogota children were often desensitised to violence and were used to cruelty to animals.
"Students have had limited opportunities to have contact with animals, and most of those experiences involved issues of animal cruelty like circuses that treat their animals poorly and cockfights, dogfights and bullfights," she said.
"But I used those experiences students were most close to in order to challenge their views and attitudes.
"I decided to use those experiences of animal cruelty and the pedagogical principles I have identified as potentially useful to design science lessons that encouraged changes of attitudes in children."
Ms Castano explained that "in the lessons I designed, children learned about animals through discussing the ethical issues that are involved in those situations, the emotions and feelings they could generate in the animals and how this could be similar to situations they had to face daily inside and outside the school."
Ms Castano said that once children started to become engaged in the discussions and share personal experiences they had not shared before with their classmates, they started to realise their classmates were experiencing similar situations and emotions and their attitudes and interactions started to change.
"There is a big potential for science to change the view towards animals and nature that most of us currently hold and promote compassionate and caring attitudes towards others based in their own value," she explained.
"At the beginning it was difficult to offer any class due to the high levels of aggression among the students that participated in this study.
"But as time went on I observed many positive changes in the attitudes of the children who participated in this study and in their interactions with their classmates."
Despite these promising results, she argues, "the purposes, nature and pedagogy of the science that is taught in schools need to be widened and include aspects of ethics and moral issues about the way we behave towards animals and nature that are often ignored."
"My thesis suggests how science education can accomplish this and serve social purposes that are not commonly included in science classes."
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