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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits 1 Summary Science is shaping people’s lives in fundamental ways. Individuals, groups, and nations increasingly seek to bolster scientific capacity in the hope of promoting social, material, and personal well-being. Efforts to enhance scientific capacity typically target schools and focus on such strategies as improving science curriculum and teacher training and strengthening the science pipeline. What is often overlooked or underestimated is the potential for science learning in nonschool settings, where people actually spend the majority of their time. Beyond the schoolhouse door, opportunities for science learning abound. Each year, tens of millions of Americans, young and old, explore and learn about science by visiting informal learning institutions, participating in programs, and using media to pursue their interests. Thousands of organizations dedicate themselves to developing, documenting, and improving science learning in informal environments for learners of all ages and backgrounds. They include informal learning and community-based organizations, libraries, schools, think tanks, institutions of higher education, government agencies, private companies, and philanthropic foundations. Informal environments include a broad array of settings, such as family discussions at home, visits to museums, nature centers, or other designed settings, and everyday activities like gardening, as well as recreational activities like hiking and fishing, and participation in clubs. Virtually all people of all ages and backgrounds engage in activities that can support science learning in the course of daily life. The Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments was established to examine the potential of nonschool settings for science learning. The committee, comprised of 14 experts in science, education, psychology, media, and informal education, conducted a broad review of the literatures
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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits that inform learning science in informal environments. Our charge specifically included assessing the evidence of science learning across settings, learner age groups, and over varied spans of time; identifying the qualities of learning experiences that are special to informal environments and those that are shared (e.g., with schools); and developing an agenda for research and development. The committee organized its analysis by looking at the places where science learning occurs as well as cross-cutting features of informal learning environments. The “places” include everyday experiences—like hunting, walking in the park, watching a sunrise—designed settings—such as visiting a science center, zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, planetarium—and programs—such as after-school science, or environmental monitoring through a local organization. Cross-cutting features that shape informal environments include the role of media as a context and tool for learning and the opportunities these environments provide for inclusion of culturally, socially, and linguistically diverse communities. We summarize key aspects of the committee’s conclusions here, beginning with evidence that informal environments can promote science learning. We then describe appropriate learning goals for these settings and how to broaden participation in science learning. Finally, we present the committee’s recommendations for practice. PROMOTING LEARNING Do people learn science in nonschool settings? This is a critical question for policy makers, practitioners, and researchers alike—and the answer is yes. The committee found abundant evidence that across all venues—everyday experiences, designed settings, and programs—individuals of all ages learn science. The committee concludes that: Everyday experiences can support science learning for virtually all people. Informal learning practices of all cultures can be conducive to learning systematic and reliable knowledge about the natural world. Across the life span, from infancy to late adulthood, individuals learn about the natural world and develop important skills for science learning. Designed spaces—including museums, science centers, zoos, aquariums, and environmental centers—can also support science learning. Rich with real-world phenomena, these are places where people can pursue and develop science interests, engage in science inquiry, and reflect on their experiences through sense-making conversations. Programs for science learning take place in schools and community-based and science-rich organizations and include sustained, self-organized activities of science enthusiasts. There is mounting evidence
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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits that structured, nonschool science programs can feed or stimulate the science-specific interests of adults and children, may positively influence academic achievement for students, and may expand participants’ sense of future science career options. Science media, in the form of radio, television, the Internet, and hand-held devices, are pervasive and make science information increasingly available to people across venues for science learning. Science media are qualitatively shaping people’s relationship with science and are new means of supporting science learning. Although the evidence is strong for the impact of educational television on science learning, substantially less evidence exists on the impact of other media—digital media, gaming, radio—on science learning. DEFINING APPROPRIATE OUTCOMES To understand whether, how, or when learning occurs, good outcome measures are necessary, yet efforts to define outcomes for science learning in informal settings have often been controversial. At times, researchers and practitioners have adopted the same tools and measures of achievement used in school settings. In some instances, public and private funding for informal education has even required such academic achievement measures. Yet traditional academic achievement outcomes are limited. Although they may facilitate coordination between informal environments and schools, they fail to reflect the defining characteristics of informal environments in three ways. Many academic achievement outcomes (1) do not encompass the range of capabilities that informal settings can promote; (2) violate critical assumptions about these settings, such as their focus on leisure-based or voluntary experiences and nonstandardized curriculum; and (3) are not designed for the breadth of participants, many of whom are not K-12 students. The challenge of developing clear and reasonable goals for learning science in informal environments is compounded by the real or perceived encroachment of a school agenda on such settings. This has led some to eschew formalized outcomes altogether and to embrace learner-defined outcomes instead. The committee’s view is that it is unproductive to blindly adopt either purely academic goals or purely subjective learning goals. Instead, the committee prefers a third course that combines a variety of specialized science learning goals used in research and practice. Strands of Science Learning We propose a “strands of science learning” framework that articulates science-specific capabilities supported by informal environments. It builds on the framework developed for K-8 science learning in Taking Science to School (National Research Council, 2007). That four-strand framework
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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits aligns tightly with our Strands 2 through 5. We have added two additional strands—Strands 1 and 6—which are of special value in informal learning environments. The six strands illustrate how schools and informal environments can pursue complementary goals and serve as a conceptual tool for organizing and assessing science learning. The six interrelated aspects of science learning covered by the strands reflect the field’s commitment to participation—in fact, they describe what participants do cognitively, socially, developmentally, and emotionally in these settings. Learners in informal environments: Strand 1: Experience excitement, interest, and motivation to learn about phenomena in the natural and physical world. Strand 2: Come to generate, understand, remember, and use concepts, explanations, arguments, models, and facts related to science. Strand 3: Manipulate, test, explore, predict, question, observe, and make sense of the natural and physical world. Strand 4: Reflect on science as a way of knowing; on processes, concepts, and institutions of science; and on their own process of learning about phenomena. Strand 5: Participate in scientific activities and learning practices with others, using scientific language and tools. Strand 6: Think about themselves as science learners and develop an identity as someone who knows about, uses, and sometimes contributes to science. The strands are distinct from, but overlap with, the science-specific knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions that are ideally developed in schools. Two strands, 1 and 6, are particularly relevant to informal learning environments. Strand 1 focuses on generating excitement, interest, and motivation—a foundation for other forms of science learning. Strand 1, while important for learning in any setting, is particularly relevant to informal learning environments, which are rich with everyday science phenomena and organized to tap prior experience and interest. Strand 6 addresses how learners view themselves with respect to science. This strand speaks to the process by which individuals become comfortable with, knowledgeable about, or interested in science. Informal learning environments can play a special role in stimulating and building on initial interest, supporting science
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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits learning identities over time as learners navigate informal environments and science in school. The strands serve as an important resource from which to develop tools for practice and research. They should play a central role in refining assessments for evaluating science learning in informal environments. BROADENING PARTICIPATION There is a clear and strong commitment among researchers and practitioners to broadening participation in science learning. Efforts to improve inclusion of individuals from diverse groups are under way at all levels and include educators and designers, as well as learners themselves. However, it is also clear that laudable efforts for inclusion often fall short. Research has turned up several valuable insights into how to organize and compel broad, inclusive participation in science learning. The committee concludes: Informal settings provide space for all learners to engage with ideas, bringing their prior knowledge and experience to bear. Learners thrive in environments that acknowledge their needs and experiences, which vary across the life span. Increased memory capacity, reasoning, and metacognitive skills, which come with maturation, enable adult learners to explore science in new ways. Senior citizens retain many of these capabilities. Despite certain declines in sensory capabilities, such as hearing and vision, the cognitive capacity to reason, recall, and interpret events remains intact for most older adults. Learning experiences should reflect a view of science as influenced by individual experience as well as social and historical contexts. They should highlight forms of participation in science that are also familiar to nonscientist learners—question asking, various modes of communication, drawing analogies, etc. Adult caregivers, peers, teachers, facilitators, and mentors play a critical role in supporting science learning. The means they use to do this range from simple, discrete acts of assistance to long-term, sustained relationships, collaborations, and apprenticeships. Partnerships between science-rich institutions and local communities show great promise for structuring inclusive science learning across settings, especially when partnerships are rooted in ongoing input from community partners that inform the entire process, beginning with setting goals. Programs, especially during out-of-school time, afford a special opportunity to expand science learning experiences for millions of children. These programs, many of which are based in schools, are increasingly folding in disciplinary and subject matter content, but by means of informal education.
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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits RECOMMENDATIONS The committee makes specific recommendations about how to organize, design, and support science learning. These recommendations provide a research and development agenda to be explored, tested, and refined. They have broad reach and application for a range of actors, including funders and leaders in practice and research; institution-based staff who are responsible for the design, evaluation, and enactment of practice; and those who provide direct service to learners—scout leaders, club organizers, front-line staff in science centers. Here we make recommendations to specific actors who can influence science learning in practice. Additional recommendations for research appear in Chapter 9. Exhibit and Program Designers Exhibit and program designers play an important role in determining what aspects of science are reflected in learning experiences, how learners engage with science and with one another, and the type and quality of educational materials that learners use. Recommendation 1: Exhibit and program designers should create informal environments for science learning according to the following principles. Informal environments should be designed with specific learning goals in mind (e.g., the strands of science learning) be interactive provide multiple ways for learners to engage with concepts, practices, and phenomena within a particular setting facilitate science learning across multiple settings prompt and support participants to interpret their learning experiences in light of relevant prior knowledge, experiences, and interests support and encourage learners to extend their learning over time Recommendation 2: From their inception, informal environments for science learning should be developed through community-educator partnerships and whenever possible should be rooted in scientific problems and ideas that are consequential for community members. Recommendation 3: Educational tools and materials should be developed through iterative processes involving learners, educators, designers, and experts in science, including the sciences of human learning and development.
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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits Front-Line Educators Front-line educators include the professional and volunteer staff of institutions and programs that offer and support science learning experiences. In some ways, even parents and other care providers who interact with learners in these settings are front-line educators. Front-line educators may model desirable science learning behaviors, helping learners develop and expand scientific explanations and practice and in turn shaping how learners interact with science, with one another, and with educational materials. They may also serve as the interface between informal institutions and programs and schools, communities, and groups of professional educators. Given the diversity of community members who do (or could) participate in informal environments, front-line educators should embrace diversity and work thoughtfully with diverse groups. Recommendation 4: Front-line staff should actively integrate questions, everyday language, ideas, concerns, worldviews, and histories, both their own and those of diverse learners. To do so they will need support opportunities to develop cultural competence, and to learn with and about the groups they want to serve. REFERENCE National Research Council. (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten Through Eighth Grade. R.A. Duschl, H.A. Schweingruber, and A.W. Shouse (Eds.). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
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