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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
Science Learning Is Cultural
Too often cultural diversity in science learning is studied by comparing the skills and knowledge of children from nondominant groups with those from the dominant group (Chavajay and Rogoff, 1995). In these comparisons, mainstream skills and upbringing are considered “normal” and variations observed in nondominant groups are taken as aberrations that produce deficits, lending support to a deficit model of diversity. Such studies do not appropriately account for the cultural nature of education environments or the diverse practices of science.
Science has been described by some as a social construct, “heavily dependent on cultural contexts, power relationships, value systems, ideological dogma and human emotional needs” (Harding, 1998, p. 3). Although this view of science is a contested one, seeing science as “a culturally-mediated way of thinking and knowing suggests that learning can be defined as engagement with scientific practices” (Brickhouse, Lowery, and Schultz, 2000, p. 441). This, in turn, can lead to expectations and limitations that greatly impact who engages in science and how science is conducted. When people enter into the practices of science, they do not shed their cultural world views at the door. Calabrese Barton (1998b) argues for allowing science and science understanding to grow out of lived experiences and that, in doing so, people “remove the binary distinction from doing science or not doing science and being in science or being out of science … allow[ing] connections between [learners’] life worlds and science to be made more easily … [and] providing space for multiple voices to be heard and explored” (p. 389). This view is a very powerful one when one considers the goals of informal environments for learning science.
It has also been argued that the field of science itself is quite diverse in the methods it employs. Nobel laureate physicist P.W. Bridgeman argued that “there is no scientific method as such” (Dalton, 1967, cited in Bogdan and Biklen, 2007). He continued by stating that “many eminent physicists, chemists, and mathematicians question whether there is a reproducible method that all investigators could or should follow, and they have been shown in their research to take diverse, and often unascertainable steps in discovering and solving problems” (Dalton, 1967, p. 41). This conception of science illustrates the need to cultivate various ways of knowing, learning, and evaluating evidence.
Ways of knowing, learning, and evaluating evidence are connected to the language and discourse styles accepted in science and science learning. Traditional classroom practices have been found to be successful for students whose discourse practices at home resemble those of school science—mainly students from middle-class and upper-middle class European American homes (Kurth, Anderson, and Palincsar, 2002). Such practices create an exclusionary aspect to science in which the discourse of science functions as a gatekeeper