brewing alcohol—processes that were closely connected to daily life in an agrarian society.
Beginning in the mid-19th century the world’s fairs or expositions brought people from around the world together to learn about developments in commerce, technology, science, and cultural affairs. World’s fairs have been the site for initial broad dissemination of scientific and technological developments, especially during the period of industrialization, when developments like telephone communication were unveiled to vast publics. Recently, individuals’ personal recollections of these events have been used as the basis for exploring what people attend to, learn, and recall from learning experiences in informal settings (e.g., Anderson, 2003; Anderson, Storksdieck, and Spock, 2007; Anderson and Shimizu, 2007).
The role and structure of informal learning in this country have evolved over the past 200 years. Today, technological advances have distanced people from traditional agrarian experiences. In some respects, members of this highly urbanized and technological society have fewer opportunities to explore the natural world than did their ancestors, who raised livestock and farmed. Science education has evolved in a new social context. News and entertainment media merge with natural history museums and science centers, after-school programs, and computer games and gaming communities to reshape the world and people’s exposure to science.
Although many people are quick to point out a large and persistent resource gap between schools and nonschool settings, in recent years public and private funders have made significant investments to support informal environments for science learning. A 1993 report of the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering and Technology showed that the federal government spent about $67 million on “public understanding of science” activities and that the federal portion was probably only 10 percent of the total outlay for such activities (Lewenstein, 1994). Since 1993 the federal investment in informal science education has more than doubled, totaling $137.4 million in fiscal year (FY) 2006 (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Increases in funding have also occurred in federal programs that provide informal environments for learning in general (not science specific), such as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, an after- and out-of-school program. Originally, in FY 1995, $750,000 was allocated to the 21st Century Centers, and since then their funding has expanded to just under $1 billion in FY 2006 (Learning Point Associates, 2006). Additional funding for informal science learning comes from national foundations, nonprofit research organizations, and advocacy groups that are interested in supporting opportunities for underserved populations.
Organizations, consortiums, affinity groups, and publications concerned with learning science in informal environments have also proliferated over the past 50 years (Lewenstein, 1992; Schiele, 1994), as shown in Box 1-2. The post–World War II Soviet Sputnik Program, which in 1957 launched the