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Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments
This project is a powerful illustration of how an informal experience can provide rich and meaningful opportunities for people to participate in and learn about science. With some guidance from staff, the participants used the tools of science as they learned the practices, goals, and habits of mind of the culture of science. Similarly, the scientific community responded to participants, modifying their project design as a result of feedback and continued interest in the project.
For example, staff added the Seed Preference Test because participants were looking for a new challenge. Through observation over a long period of time, the citizen scientists documented that a hypothesis developed by lab staff was inaccurate. As is done in the scientific community, their findings were shared in articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Through this fruitful collaboration, the relationship between scientists and citizen scientists evolved, resulting in all members contributing and gaining valuable scientific knowledge.
A sustained citizen-science experience like Project FeederWatch provides an ideal opportunity for science novices to become familiar with the process and culture of science and even to become engaged participants in the scientific enterprise. Short-term or one-time informal science education experiences will be more challenged to acquaint learners with the culture of science in the fullest sense. Nonetheless, it is still possible to portray the social, lived, and dynamic aspects of science as part of a science exhibition and short programming.3
WHAT IS SCIENCE LEARNING?
Research on learning science makes clear that it involves development of a broad array of interests, attitudes, knowledge, and competencies. Clearly, learning “just the facts” or learning how to design simple experiments is not sufficient. In order to capture the multifaceted nature of science learning, we adopt the “strands of science learning” framework developed in Learning Science in Informal Environments that articulates the science-specific capabilities supported by informal environments. This framework builds on a four-strand model developed to capture what it means to learn science in school settings.4 The two additional strands incorporated for learning in informal environments, Strands 1 and 6, reflect the special commitment to interest, personal growth, and sustained engagement that is a hallmark of informal settings. The strands provide a framework for thinking about elements of scientific knowledge and practice.