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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
overwhelm (e.g., Allen, 2004; Martin, 2004). The objective is for participants to have conversations, explore, and have fun in and around science. The expectation is that participation in informal contexts involves learning science and that science learning will follow. In other words, if there is participation, then learning is assumed to be occurring (see Lave, 1996); if there is enjoyment, then return to science and possible identification with science is anticipated. Recent work by Falk et al. (2007) suggests that visitors to zoos and aquariums who already identify themselves as participants in science learning anticipate that their visits will enhance and strengthen this identity—which appears to be the case.
While short-term participation in well-defined programs is relatively easy to assess, long-term and cumulative progressions are much more challenging to document, due primarily to the difficulties of tracking learners across time, space, and range of activity. Nevertheless, researchers must accept this challenge, because a key assumption in the field (e.g., Crowley and Jacobs, 2002) is that effective lifelong learning is a cumulative process that incorporates a huge variety of media and settings (everyday life in the home, television, Internet, libraries, museum programs, school courses, after-school programs, etc.). Thus, longitudinal studies are particularly useful.
In assessing Strand 5 outcomes, culturally responsive evaluation techniques help to maximize validity, since members of a community may identify their levels of participation in quite different ways from researchers who may be outside it. For example, in a study by Garibay (2006) researchers had to broaden their definitions of “parent involvement” to fit the norms of a community they were unfamiliar with.
Methods of Researching Strand 5 Outcomes
Because learner choice is such a key element in most informal learning environments and the extent to which learners engage in science over time is a key element of learning to participate in science, data on who enrolls in a program, attends an event or offering, joins science clubs and related affinity groups, or uses websites or other forms of media or tools for science learning is important to track. Often, researchers collect demographic data (e.g., Diamond, 1999) in conjunction with attendance data. Collecting accurate data on participation, especially degrees of participation, is notoriously difficult in many informal settings, such as after-school programs and community-based organizations (Chaput, Little, and Weiss, 2004).
To study participation at a finer scale, researchers interested in designed settings—museums, science centers, community gardens, and other community-based organizations—record the detailed movements of visitors through a public space or exhibit, showing their degree of engagement throughout the area as well as the relative attracting and holding powers of the individual designed elements (see Appendix B for a discussion of hold-