As individuals interact with the natural world, their built environment, and participate in family and community life, they develop knowledge about nature and science, as well as science-relevant interests and skills. Science learning can occur through a number of experiences, including mentorship, reading scientific texts, talking with experts, watching educational television, or participating in science-related clubs. Informal learning experiences are often characterized as being guided by learner interests, voluntary, personal, deeply embedded in a specific context, and open-ended.4 Successful informal science learning experiences are seen as not only leading to increased knowledge or understanding in science, but also to further inquiry, enjoyment, and a sense that science learning can be personally relevant and rewarding.
In order to make sense of the vast number of informal settings in which science learning might occur, we use three categories developed in the National Research Council report Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits.5 These include everyday informal environments (such as watching TV; reading newspapers, magazines, or books; searching online; playing educational computer games; having conversations; pursuing one’s hobby; or volunteering for an environmental cause), designed environments (such as museums, science centers, planetariums, aquariums, zoos, environmental centers, or libraries), and programs (such as 4-H programs, museum science clubs, citizen science activities, and after-school activities). All of these environments can be placed on a continuum characterized by the degree of choice given to the learner or group of learners, the extent to which the environments and experiences provided are designed by people other than the learners, and the type and use of assessments.
“Everyday learning includes a range of experiences that may extend over a lifetime, such as family discussions, walks in the woods, personal hobbies, watching TV, reading books or magazines, surfing the Web, or helping out on the farm.”