An important value of informal environments for science learning is being accessible to all people. However, social, economic, cultural, ethnic, historical, and systemic factors all influence the types of access and opportunities these environments provide to learners.1 Learning to participate in science—that is, developing the necessary knowledge and skills, as well as adopting the norms and practices associated with doing science—is difficult for many people. It can be especially challenging for members of traditionally underrepresented (or nondominant) groups.
The challenges of engaging nondominant groups in the sciences are reflected in studies showing that (1) inadequate science instruction exists in most elementary schools, especially those serving children from low-income and rural areas; (2) girls often do not identify strongly with science or science careers; (3) students from nondominant groups perform lower on standardized measures of science achievement than their peers; (4) although the number of individuals with disabilities pursuing postsecondary education has increased, few pursue academic careers in science or engineering; and (5) learning science can be especially challenging for all learners because of the specialized language involved.2 Addressing these challenges requires rethinking what it means to provide equal access to science.
Striving for equity in science education has often resulted in attempts to provide better access to opportunities already available to dominant groups, without consideration of the cultural or contextual issues that must be taken into account. Science instruction and learning experiences in informal environments often privilege the science-related practices of middle-class whites and may fail to recognize the science-related practices associated with individuals from other groups. In informal settings for learning science, such as museums, some initiatives are aimed at introducing new audiences to existing science content by offering reduced-cost admission or bringing existing science programming that is already offered to mainstream groups to nondominant communities.
The logic of this view is that individuals from particular groups or communities have simply not had sufficient access to science learning experiences. To remedy that situation, educators deliver to nondominant groups the same kinds of learning experiences that have served dominant groups. However, simply exposing individuals to the same learning environments may not result in equity, because the environments themselves are designed using the lens of the dominant culture.