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Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments
variety of ways, including family activities and conversation, children may begin to learn about topics that are relevant to science, even when “learning science” is not an explicit goal of the activity.5
As an example, consider the case of watching television. Although most people think of watching television as a solitary activity, when adults or older siblings become involved, the activity can become social, conversational—and more productive. A study with 23 3- and 4-year-old white, middle-class children conducted by Robert Reiser and his colleagues focused on the value of adult-facilitated sessions of Sesame Street.6 During the show, the adults in the experimental group intervened and asked the children to name the letters and numbers shown on the screen, while the control group did not have such conversations. Three days later, the children in the experimental group were better able to name the letters and numbers, suggesting that adult involvement can support learning.
In another study, Margaret Haefner and Ellen Wartella, both researchers in communications studies, found that older siblings could help their younger brothers and sisters understand plot elements in educational programming. Through explanations and laughter, “older children did influence the younger children’s general evaluations of the program characters.”7 Even though these studies were not on science programming, their results suggest that active engagement during viewing could have a positive impact for science learning as well. Even an intrinsically passive medium such as television can become interactive when a social, conversational element is introduced. Through conversation and questioning, the ideas embedded in television programs can resonate for young viewers.
Older children and adults also benefit from interaction with others. In group interactions during museum visits, individuals with more knowledge about a particular exhibit may play an important role in facilitating the learning of others by pointing out critical elements or information and by providing input and structure for a more focused discussion of science.8 In a small study of an exhibit about glass, adults with high prior knowledge and interest in glass tended to discuss how or why something happened more often than those with less prior knowledge or interest.9 In another example from the museum context, visitors’ activities at an exhibit were affected by other visitors’ behavior, even when the other visitors are strangers. In one study, adult visitors in particular were more likely to touch or manipulate an exhibit if they had previously witnessed a person silently modeling these behaviors.10
The importance of more knowledgeable others is reflected in the roles of mentors or scientists in many informal experiences. In citizen-science experiences, for example, the relationship between the scientists and volunteers is critical to the