Productive science learning relationships frequently involve sustained individual inquiry but also intensive social interaction with interest groups and in mentoring relationships with experts, as revealed through Diane Miller’s commitment to the teens in the program sponsored by the St. Louis Science Center in Chapter 3. In some cases, learners may develop a relationship with experts, who help them refine their science understanding and skill deliberately over sustained time periods. Seasoned science enthusiasts may serve as de facto mentors for newcomers in hobby groups (e.g., amateur astronomy, gardening). Distributed and varied expertise in groups allows less knowledgeable individuals to interact with more knowledgeable peers and mentors. Frequently, the roles of expert and novice shift back and forth over time, on the basis of specific aspects of the inquiry in question.
Research shows that learning is a social process, heightened by conversation and engagement with other people. In designed settings such as museums, studies have illustrated how parents and other caregivers can mediate the experience for their children, making it more meaningful. With the knowledge that social interactions help facilitate learners, designers of informal science experiences can develop activities that encourage interactivity, discussion, and reflection.
Everyday experiences such as watching television, an intrinsically passive experience, can result in more learning when children engage with others in questioning, explaining, making predictions, and evaluating evidence.21 Thus, in a variety of ways, including family social 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.22
In the next chapter, we focus more closely on the interest and motivations that learners bring to each informal science experience. Understanding how these variables impact learning can lead educators to develop more compelling exhibits, activities, or programs.