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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
A cultural lens makes salient a broad set of aspects of learning experiences that can be harnessed (e.g., by educators, facilitators, parents) to interpret, extend, and support learning. These include attending to the resources for learning that learners bring to a learning environment (e.g., specialized forms of talking and argumentation), the ways in which learners relate to and identify with the natural world, the models of disciplinary and everyday science they encounter in their communities, the material resources and activities that are familiar and available to them, and the community goals and needs related to science learning. For example, in a classic study by Heath (1983), fifth-grade children were supported in conducting a science investigation related to food production that engaged them in different aspects of community life. The children acted as ethnographers of local agricultural activities and engaged with a range of community members about food production. In the process they learned how to scientifically obtain, verify, and communicate information, and their oral and written language demonstrated that their understanding of relevant scientific concepts developed over the course of their inquiry.
An ecological approach underlines two critical issues for understanding the context of learning. One is that the intellectual, knowledge-focused domain cannot be isolated from the domain of social identity. Identity development and elaboration are linked to affective and motivational issues that catalyze learning (Resnick, 1987; Schauble, Leinhardt, and Martin, 1998; Hull and Greeno, 2006). The second, as discussed above, is that there is a shift in focus from the individual learner in isolation to culturally variable participation structures, such as apprenticeship learning and legitimate peripheral participation, the process through which individuals move from simpler tasks at the periphery of group activity to higher level and more central positions of responsibility and expertise as they learn new capabilities (Rogoff, 1990, 2003; Lave and Wenger, 1991).
This study explores the broad range of learning settings and outcomes found in the literatures on learning science in informal environments. We examine the role of personal psychology, places, and cultural practices on science learning. In the next section we define the kinds of outcomes that are especially relevant to informal environments for science learning.
GOALS OF SCIENCE LEARNING
Learning science in informal environments is a diverse enterprise and serves a broad range of intended outcomes. These include inspiring emotional reactions, reframing ideas, introducing new concepts, communicating the social and personal value of science, promoting deep experiences of natural phenomena, and showcasing cutting-edge scientific developments.