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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
Building Science Identity Across Age and Background
One of the most common underlying agendas of informal environments is not only to interest people in science, but also possibly to propel children into science careers and engagement in lifelong science learning through hobbies and other everyday pursuits. Compelling stories from leading scientists and science educators often point to museums and similar settings as a contributing influence on their lifelong passion for science (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Spock, 2000). Such experiences may serve as a general or specific impetus for a brilliant career, for example:
A fairly typical childhood is one recalled by Isabella Karle, one of the leading crystallographers in the world, a pioneer in new methods of electron diffraction analysis and X-ray analysis. Her parents were Polish immigrants with minimal formal education and limited means. Yet even during the worst years of the Great Depression Isabella’s mother saved from her housekeeping money so that the family could take two-week vacations to explore the East Coast. The parents took their children to the library, to museums, and to concerts.… So even though a child need not develop an early interest in a domain in order to become creative in it later, it does help a great deal to become exposed early to the wealth and variety of life (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 163).
[E.O.] Wilson wanted to be an entomologist by age ten; some issues of the National Geographic and a visit with a friend to the Washington zoo confirmed that what he wanted most to do in life was to become an explorer and a naturalist (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 267).
A study by Sachatello-Sawyer and colleagues (2002) shows that adults seeking learning experiences in their midlives often turn to subjects that were of interest to them around the age of 10. These studies highlight the impact of experiences in informal environments at an early age on later life decisions for some, offering evidence of ongoing learning progressions in science. Interestingly, these progressions may falter and stall, especially without continuing involvement. For example, Jarvis and Pell (2005) interviewed children ages 10-11 two months after their visit to a space center, including a mediated group experience at a Challenger Center simulation. They found that 20 percent of the students were more interested in science careers after their visit than before, but that this interest declined over a 4-5 month period following the experience.
Some attempts have been made by practitioners to extend the learning trajectories of participants over space and time. For example, Schauble and Bartlett (2002) designed an extended trajectory for science learning by using the notion of a funnel, in which the outermost, largest physical space is designed to invite learners through easily accessible, compelling, and loosely structured experiences. The outer edge of the funnel would serve all learners,