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Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments
These similarities across the two experiences are not a coincidence. They reflect the designers’ commitment to providing informal experiences for learning and their knowledge of how to support learning. This knowledge is informed by a growing body of research exploring how people learn across settings and how individuals would like to learn or experience the world in their free time.
A SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO LEARNING
Over a century ago, scientists began studying thinking and learning in a more systematic way, taking steps toward what are now called the cognitive and learning sciences. Beginning in the 1960s, advances in fields as diverse as linguistics, psychology, computer science, and neuroscience offered provocative new perspectives on human development and powerful new technologies for observing behavior and brain functions. As a result, over the past 40 years there has been an outpouring of scientific research on the mind and the brain—a “cognitive revolution,” as some have termed it.8 At the same time, applied research and evaluation in informal science learning have exploded and provided the informal science learning profession with many of today’s fundamental principles and frameworks, many of them informed by the results of this cognitive revolution.
This huge and growing body of research on learning provides important insights for designing informal environments for learning science, including guidance about how to understand the varied types of learning that occur in informal science environments; how to actively support this learning through designed experiences that directly tap into natural learning processes; how to assess learning in these settings appropriately; and how to improve on existing informal science environments, including long-term programs, one-shot events, and exhibits. In broad brushstrokes the research on learning to date has revealed the importance of understanding both how individual minds work during the learning process and how the social and cultural context surrounding an individual shapes and supports that learning.
Research on individual cognition and learning, attitudinal development, and motivation has provided insight into the development of knowledge, skills, interests, affective responses, and identity. Some of the relevant principles of individual cognition and learning are articulated in the National Research Council report How People Learn.9 These principles include the influence of prior knowledge; how experts differ from novices (experts being those with deep knowledge and