engage participants in multiple ways, including physically, emotionally, and cognitively;
encourage participants’ direct interactions with phenomena of the natural and designed physical world largely in learner-directed ways;
provide multifaceted and dynamic portrayals of science; and
build on learners’ prior knowledge and interests.
Direct access to phenomena of the natural and designed physical world—both familiar and foreign—is fundamental to informal environments. In informal environments, basic aspects of daily life are frequently framed in light of associated scientific ideas (e.g., draining a bath tub, swinging on a rope, throwing a baseball pitcher’s curveball, and setting off the chain reaction of dominos falling can all be examined from the standpoint of physical mechanics). Informal environments may also provide access to phenomena and experiences that are difficult or impossible for learners to access otherwise, such as extreme micro- and macro-scale phenomena (e.g., views of earth from space, the merging of a human sperm and egg), cutting-edge science (e.g., nanotechnology), and historical and contemporary tools of scientific inquiry.
Hallmarks of learning in informal environments include interactivity driven by learner choice, an emphasis on the emotional responses of individual participants, and group experiences. At its best, informal science learning builds on both long-term and momentary or situated interests and motivations of learners. These hallmarks are evident in research and evaluation and in the practices, tools, and institutions of informal science learning.
Informal science education portrays science as multifaceted, highlighting that the knowledge and processes for building knowledge vary across fields. For example, much of physics and cognitive science is experimental. Many fields—astronomy, geology, anthropology, evolutionary biology—also draw on observational and historical reconstruction methods. Also, the values and practices of science reflect the diverse cultural values of practicing scientists as well as their shared professional commitments.
Although science is fundamentally evidence-based and draws its predictive power from scientists collectively testing theoretical models against evidence in the natural world, there is sociological and historical evidence that its accomplishments are shaped by who participates in science and how it is carried out (see Chapter 7). The influence of diverse perspectives on science is most evident in research in which a dominant view is ultimately overturned or challenged. For example, in making the case for increasing the participation of women in science, numerous examples have been identified that show how a scientist’s gender can shape the questions asked and influence the interpretation of data. One of the most powerful examples is the involvement of a critical mass of female scientists in biology, which has been