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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
example, can enhance social interaction and learning in intergenerational groups with varying language abilities (Garibay and Gilmartin, 2003; Garibay, 2004a). Garibay observed that, in such groups, bilingual interpretive labels (English and Spanish) allowed adult members who were less proficient in English to read the labels and then discuss the content with their children, directly increasing the attention of these groups to the exhibition and learning outcomes.
The work of Ash (2004) with Spanish-speaking families in museums showed that the science themes of interest were similar across families with different backgrounds, but that the emergence of scientific dialogue was made possible by providing additional support, such as a Spanish-speaking mediator. Ash discusses the importance of distributed expertise, joint productive activity, and progressive sense-making in promoting dialogic inquiry. The dynamic changes, however, for non-English-speaking families who cannot use signs or read English. Wheaton and Ash’s research (2008) on science education in informal programming found that participating girls welcomed and enjoyed the bilingual program because they learned science terminology and concepts in both languages and thus could better communicate with their parents (who were predominantly Spanish speaking) about what they were doing and learning in camp. This increased their confidence and helped bridge camp and home environments.
Having community-based contacts that are familiar and safe can also be critical in engaging families in science exploration and conversations and even, at a more basic level, in helping diverse groups see museums as less enigmatic places and as viable destinations for their families (Garibay, 2004b). Members of diverse cultural groups can play a critical role in the development and implementation of programs, serving as designers, advisers, front-line educators, and evaluators of such efforts.
Lee (2001) emphasizes the need to acknowledge and use a learner’s linguistic resources, pointing to the importance of a balanced orientation, which values a learner’s cultural identity. The Native Waters project, for example, strives to deliver culturally sensitive water education that includes programmatic components grounded in American Indian world views. The Algebra project, aimed explicitly at serving low-income and minority children, uses students’ lived experiences and local environments as the starting point to help them build an understanding of mathematical concepts. For example, drawing on urban students’ experiences riding the subway, participants might take a train ride and then reconstruct their trip using a map to represent a number line where they explore algebraic concepts, such as equivalent and positive and negative numbers (“how many” and “which direction”). Both Native Waters and the Algebra project consider community involvement central to their work and include community members (e.g., elders, college-age tutors) in their design process.
The cultural variability of social structures (e.g., family structure, norms