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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
Attendance patterns appear to reflect this disconnect. For example, several studies have noted that informal institutions for science learning (e.g., museums, nature centers, zoos, etc.) face challenges in reaching and serving nondominant groups. In a study of adult programming in museums, participants had very high levels of education (just over 70 percent had college or postgraduate degrees) compared with the general U.S. adult population (Sachatello-Sawyer, 1996). Similarly, Rockman Et Al (2007) noted that the audience for science media tends to be a predominantly white, older, wealthier, and more educated segment of society. A study in Chicago about cultural participation, which also included several science-focused informal institutions, found that participation was highest in predominantly white, high-income sections of the metropolitan area (LaLonde et al., 2006) despite the fact that many museums are located in areas that are populated with large proportions of families from nondominant cultural groups.
The informal science learning community and many related institutions are making efforts to address inequity. These efforts typically aim to introduce new audiences to existing science programming, through outreach initiatives, reduced-cost admission, or other methods. They do not often take into account the contexts, perspectives, and needs of diverse populations.
Design for Diverse Populations
Although research on how to structure science learning opportunities to better serve nondominant groups is sparse, it does include several promising insights and practices. These practices should serve as the basis for an ongoing research and development agenda.
Environments should be developed in ways that expressly draw on participants’ cultural practices, including everyday language, linguistic practices, and local cultural experiences. Designers of informal programs and spaces for science learning have long recognized the importance of prior knowledge that participants and visitors bring to schools and other learning environments. This knowledge is typically considered culturally neutral (Heath, 2007; McDermott and Varenne, 2006). Much more attention should be paid to the ways in which culture shapes knowledge, orientations, and perspectives.
These and other findings undermine the view that typical scientific practices are largely abstract logical derivations not associated with everyday experience of the natural world. This observation also underlines the opportunity of educators working in designed environments (Cobb et al., 2003; Bell et al., 2006; Bricker and Bell, 2008) to take better advantage of the cultural practices that a diverse set of learners might bring to the environment.
In designed environments, such as museums, bilingual or multilingual labels cannot only provide access to the specific content, but also can facilitate conversations and sense-making among groups. Bilingual interpretation, for