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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
2006). One potential advantage of everyday informal settings is that they may be more likely to support learners’ interest-driven and personally relevant exploration than are more structured settings, such as classrooms and other designed educational settings.
Children’s cause-seeking “why” questions have been argued to be one sign of their intense curiosity about the world (see Heath, 1999; Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl, 1999; Tizard and Hughes, 1984). Simon (2001) compares these questions to the creative thought and exploratory thinking of scientists. Similarly, Gopnik (1998) suggests that explanation seeking is a basic human process. Some children become so interested in one domain that they are described as experts—for example a great deal of research has characterized the activities of preschool-age dinosaur experts, as well as experts in other domains relevant to science or technology (Chi, Hutchinson, and Robin, 1989; Johnson et al., 2004). Such children may also develop social reputations as experts in a particular science domain (Palmquist and Crowley, 2007). These social reputation systems can serve to further the child’s learning, in that adults, peers, and siblings may call on the child to perform as an expert (e.g., to produce and refine an explanation of a natural phenomenon) or provide them with specialized topic-related learning resources to further their learning (Barron, 2006; Bell et al., 2006). Similarly, adult experts often develop their knowledge through informal channels.
Adult science learning in everyday settings is also usually self-motivated and tightly connected to individual interest and problem solving. For example, adult learners often learn about science in the context of hobbies, such as bird watching or model airplane building (Azevedo, 2006). A sociocultural perspective on adult learning highlights how learning is often initiated in direct response to a current life problem or issue (Spradley, 1980). Environmental science learning often occurs in the context of local conflicts that threaten neighborhoods, such as pesticide use, industrial waste, effects of severe weather, or introduction of new industries in an area (Ballantyne and Bain, 1995). Also, a great deal of adult learning about human physiology and medicine tends to occur because of immediate and strong motivation to learn about illnesses experienced by the learner or someone close to them (Flynn, Smith, and Freese, 2006). Indeed, one conclusion from the literature is that adult learners tend not to be generalists in their learning of science; rather, they tend to become experts in one particular domain of interest (Sachatello-Sawyer, 2006).
Even when science learning is of the momentary type (rather than sustained or expert-like), keen interest is likely to be behind it. The research on adults’ medical knowledge is one strong example; that knowledge often comes from deep questioning of health care providers and intense searches of literature (and, more recently, the Internet) when one is facing a medical crisis (for either oneself or a loved one). The motivation to understand in