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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
longer developmental pathway that leads to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of science.
A typical scenario for everyday science learning might be a child learning from a parent, or children and adults learning from the media, siblings, peers, and coworkers. Everyday science learning can even appear in the structure of schools and the workplace. For example, some have argued that many child-oriented preschools and apprentice-like graduate programs have in common a kind of situated learning embedded in meaningful activities characteristic of everyday learning (Tharp and Gallimore, 1989). In some school classrooms, as well, children engage with science concepts and activities in informal ways (Brown and Campione, 1996). Many adults learn a great deal about science in the workplace. The science learning we focus on in this chapter, however, occurs in less structured settings.
An important distinction can be made between two categories of everyday science learning. First, there are spontaneous, opportune moments of learning that come up unexpectedly. Second, there are more deliberate and focused pursuits that involve science learning and may grow into more stable interests and activity choices. These types establish two ends of a continuum, with a range of activities falling in between.
Virtually all people participate in spontaneous everyday science learning. A classic example is when a preschool-age child asks a parent a question during everyday activities. For example in one study, while fishing with his dad, a four-year-old boy asked, “Why do fish die outside the water?” While watching a movie about dinosaurs, another four-year-old boy asked, “Why do dinosaurs grow horns?” A five-year-old girl eating dinner with her family asked, “When you die what is your body like?” (Callanan, Perez-Granados, Barajas, and Goldberg, no date). Such questions often emerge in conversations that become potential learning situations for children. Although the children themselves are not likely to be thinking about the domain of science, their questions engage other people in the exploration of ideas, creating an important context for early thinking about science.
Of course, young children are not the only ones to engage with science ideas in these spontaneous ways. Every adult has had experiences in which they pick up some new idea or new way of understanding something scientific through a casual conversation, or through a newspaper article or television show. Conversational topics one might casually encounter range from what causes earthquakes, to how new television screen technology works, to the best way to determine what food may be causing allergic reactions in a child. What these examples have in common is that science learning may be occurring without any particular goal of learning.
Not everyone participates in the second, more deliberate type of everyday science activity. But many do: children become “experts” in particular domains (dinosaurs, birds, stars), adults pursue science hobbies (computers, ham radio, gardening), and other focused pursuits emerge because of life