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What Has History to Do with Cognition? Interactive Methods for Studying Research Laboratories

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We have been studying cognition and learning in research laboratories in the field of biomedical engineering (Nersessian, Kurz-Milcke, Newstetter & Davies 2003; Newstetter, Kurz-Milcke & Nersessian, in press[a]). Through our combining of ethnography and cognitive-historical analysis in studying these settings we have been led to understand these labs as comprising evolving distributed cognitive systems and as furnishing agentive learning environments. For this paper we develop the theme of 'models-in-action,' a variant of what Knorr Cetina (1999) has called 'knowledge-in-action.' Among the epistemically most salient objects in these labs are so called "model systems," which are designs that blend engineering with the study and use of biological systems for purposes of simulative model-based reasoning. We portray the prevalent design-orientation in this engineering specialty and how the prevailing activity of cell-culturing in these labs transitions into a design activity for the bio-medical engineers, leading them to work with 'wet' devices. We discuss how devices, 'wet' and 'dry,' situate model-based understandings and how they participate in model systems in these labs. Models tend to come in clusters or configurations, and the model systems in these labs are epistemically salient junctures of interlocking models. Model systems in these labs evolve thereby consolidating what we want to call a 'fabric of interlocking models,' which functions as point of stability and departure in these labs. We convey a taste of such a 'fabric' for a tissue-engineering lab. We conjecture that through this 'fabric' extended developments in technology and methodology have a 'situated' presence in the workings of these labs.


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