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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
that structured, nonschool science programs can feed or stimulate the science-specific interests of adults and children, may positively influence academic achievement for students, and may expand participants’ sense of future science career options.
Science media, in the form of radio, television, the Internet, and hand-held devices, are pervasive and make science information increasingly available to people across venues for science learning. Science media are qualitatively shaping people’s relationship with science and are new means of supporting science learning. Although the evidence is strong for the impact of educational television on science learning, substantially less evidence exists on the impact of other media—digital media, gaming, radio—on science learning.
DEFINING APPROPRIATE OUTCOMES
To understand whether, how, or when learning occurs, good outcome measures are necessary, yet efforts to define outcomes for science learning in informal settings have often been controversial. At times, researchers and practitioners have adopted the same tools and measures of achievement used in school settings. In some instances, public and private funding for informal education has even required such academic achievement measures. Yet traditional academic achievement outcomes are limited. Although they may facilitate coordination between informal environments and schools, they fail to reflect the defining characteristics of informal environments in three ways. Many academic achievement outcomes (1) do not encompass the range of capabilities that informal settings can promote; (2) violate critical assumptions about these settings, such as their focus on leisure-based or voluntary experiences and nonstandardized curriculum; and (3) are not designed for the breadth of participants, many of whom are not K-12 students.
The challenge of developing clear and reasonable goals for learning science in informal environments is compounded by the real or perceived encroachment of a school agenda on such settings. This has led some to eschew formalized outcomes altogether and to embrace learner-defined outcomes instead. The committee’s view is that it is unproductive to blindly adopt either purely academic goals or purely subjective learning goals. Instead, the committee prefers a third course that combines a variety of specialized science learning goals used in research and practice.
Strands of Science Learning
We propose a “strands of science learning” framework that articulates science-specific capabilities supported by informal environments. It builds on the framework developed for K-8 science learning in Taking Scienceto School (National Research Council, 2007). That four-strand framework