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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
est in enriching the scientific knowledge, interest, and capacity of students and the broader public.
The emerging sense that informal environments can make substantial contributions to science education on a broad scale motivated the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) interest in requesting the study that resulted in this report. NSF is the leading sponsor for research and development in science education in informal settings. Its portfolio of sponsored activities includes program and materials development, research, and evaluation across a broad range of informal settings and areas of STEM education throughout the nation. This report describes numerous NSF-sponsored projects as well as projects sponsored through other public and private sources.
This report provides a broad description of science learning in informal environments and a detailed review of the evidence of their impact on science learning. It synthesizes literature across multiple disciplines and fields to identify a common framework of educational goals and outcomes, insights into educational practices, and a research agenda. The remainder of this chapter provides a brief historical overview of the literatures, a discussion of current issues driving research and practice, and a description of the characteristics of informal environments for science learning; it also describes the scope of the study and provides an orientation to the remainder of the volume.
Emergence and Growth of ScienceLearning in Informal Environments
The early roots of America’s education system developed in the late 18th century when informal learning institutions, such as libraries, churches, and museums, were seen as the main institutions concerned with public education. They were viewed as places that encouraged exploration, dialogue, and conversation among the public (Conn, 1998). The American Lyceum movement, which began in the 1820s, supported the growing movement of public education in the United States (Ray, 2005). Lyceums, modeled after the early Greek halls of learning, brought the public together with experts in science and philosophy for lectures, debates, and scientific experiments. In the late 1800s, the Chautauqua movement, a successor to the Lyceum movement, grew out of the social and geographic isolation of America’s farming and ranching communities. Chautauquas, a type of educational family summer camp, brought notable lecturers and entertainers of the day to rural communities, where there was a strong hunger for both entertainment and education. These movements were driven by the notion that in a democratic nation, an educated populace is needed to inform public policy. They provided a conduit for bringing the science knowledge and practices of the day to an American public with limited access to information. At the same time, people often developed an intuitive sense of the natural world and scientific principles through activities like farming, gardening, and