on assessing science learning outcomes (Allen et al., 2007; Martin, 2004).2 It stands roughly as a consensus that the standardized, multiple-choice test—what Wilson (2004) regrets has become a “monoculture” species for demonstrating outcomes in the K-12 education system—is at odds with the types of activities, learning, and reasons for participation that characterize informal experiences. Testing can easily be viewed as antithetical to common characteristics of the informal learning experience. Controlling participants’ experiences to isolate particular influences, to arrange for pre- and posttests, or to attempt other traditional measures of learning can be impractical, disruptive, and, at times, impossible given the features, norms, and typical practices in informal environments.
To elaborate: Visits to museums and other designed informal settings are typically short and isolated, making it problematic to separate the effects of a single visit from the confluence of factors contributing to positive science learning outcomes. The very premise of engaging learners in activities largely for the purposes of promoting future learning experiences beyond the immediate environment runs counter to the prevalent model of assessing learning on the basis of a well-defined educational treatment (e.g., the lesson, the unit, the year’s math curriculum). In addition, many informal learning spaces, by definition, provide participants with a leisure experience, making it essential that the experience conforms to expectations and that events in the setting do not threaten self-esteem or feel unduly critical or controlling—factors that can thwart both participation and learning (Shute, 2008; Steele, 1997).
Other important features of informal environments for science learning include the high degree to which contingency typically plays a role in the unfolding of events—that is, much of what happens in these environments emerges during the course of activities and is not prescribed or predetermined. To a large extent, informal environments are learner-centered specifically because the agenda is mutually set across participants—including peers, family members, and any facilitators who are present—making it difficult to consistently control the exposure of participants in the setting to particular treatments, interventions, or activities (Allen et al., 2007). It may well be that contingency, insofar as it allows for spontaneous alignment of personal goals and motivations to situational resources, lies at the heart of some of the most powerful learning effects in the informal domain. Put somewhat differently, the freedom and flexibility that participants have in working with people and materials in the environment often make informal learning settings particularly attractive.
Another feature that makes many informal learning environments attractive is the consensual, collaborative aspect of deciding what counts as success: for example, what children at a marine science camp agree is a