National Academies Press: OpenBook

Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments (2010)

Chapter: 7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity

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Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
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7
Culture, Diversity, and Equity

Native Waters: Sharing the Source, a traveling exhibit developed by the Native Waters project at Montana State University, has a double message. Its goal is to share cultural views about water held by the tribal peoples of the Missouri River Basin as well as scientific concepts about the Missouri River and its watershed. The exhibit accomplishes its double-pronged goal through its design, informative text panels, and interactive features.

The exhibit is set up like an Indian tipi, with the inside space designated as a place to hear stories about native culture. A sculpture of a spring takes center stage, with four banners, pointing in the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) emanating from the spring. Each banner is illustrated with native drawings and includes quotes from Missouri Basin elders and tribal members. Visitors learn about sunrise and sunset on the east and west banners and about the phases of the moon, which cut across geographical boundaries. On the tipi wall is the story of the Missouri River. It begins in the Rocky Mountains and travels east until it reaches Cohokia, a native settlement that once had a population of 50,000.

The story of the river is told as a blend of scientific and native elements. As the river moves eastward and downhill, seasonal changes affect its size, creating what often is referred to as its pulse. According to native lore, the movements of the river also represents the idea that while traveling forward, one should also remember one’s past, just as the river carries remnants of its origins.

This example illustrates one strategy for closing the gaps that can exist between the beliefs, values, and practices of some communities and those embodied in Western science. By incorporating elements of native culture into a science exhibit, the designers are blurring the border between Western and native approaches to understanding the natural world, requiring all visitors to examine their own worldviews.

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

An important value of informal environments for science learning is being accessible to all people. However, social, economic, cultural, ethnic, historical, and systemic factors all influence the types of access and opportunities these environments provide to learners.1 Learning to participate in science—that is, developing the necessary knowledge and skills, as well as adopting the norms and practices associated with doing science—is difficult for many people. It can be especially challenging for members of traditionally underrepresented (or nondominant) groups.

The challenges of engaging nondominant groups in the sciences are reflected in studies showing that (1) inadequate science instruction exists in most elementary schools, especially those serving children from low-income and rural areas; (2) girls often do not identify strongly with science or science careers; (3) students from nondominant groups perform lower on standardized measures of science achievement than their peers; (4) although the number of individuals with disabilities pursuing postsecondary education has increased, few pursue academic careers in science or engineering; and (5) learning science can be especially challenging for all learners because of the specialized language involved.2 Addressing these challenges requires rethinking what it means to provide equal access to science.

RETHINKING EQUITY

Striving for equity in science education has often resulted in attempts to provide better access to opportunities already available to dominant groups, without consideration of the cultural or contextual issues that must be taken into account. Science instruction and learning experiences in informal environments often privilege the science-related practices of middle-class whites and may fail to recognize the science-related practices associated with individuals from other groups. In informal settings for learning science, such as museums, some initiatives are aimed at introducing new audiences to existing science content by offering reduced-cost admission or bringing existing science programming that is already offered to mainstream groups to nondominant communities.

The logic of this view is that individuals from particular groups or communities have simply not had sufficient access to science learning experiences. To remedy that situation, educators deliver to nondominant groups the same kinds of learning experiences that have served dominant groups. However, simply exposing individuals to the same learning environments may not result in equity, because the environments themselves are designed using the lens of the dominant culture.

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
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“Promoting collaboration, partnership, and diversity in power and ownership may provide greater opportunities for nondominant groups to see their own ways of thinking and meaning-making—or making sense of what they are seeing and experiencing—reflected in informal settings.”

For example, the signs and labeling of an exhibition or the content of a program may be in English only, or a program for families may be designed to accommodate the one- or two-parent family structure typical of many middle-class, white families, rather than the multigenerational, extended family structures that may be prevalent among other groups.

To achieve equity, practitioners must consider ways to connect the home and community cultures of diverse groups to the culture of science. Angela Calabrese Barton, professor of science education at Michigan State University, argues for allowing connections between learners’ life worlds and science to be made more easily and “providing space for multiple voices to be heard and explored.”3

An important first step toward designing more inclusive and genuinely equitable learning experiences in science is for educators and designers to recognize that they may be acting under assumptions that reflect the dominant culture of middle-class whites. As a result, the programs, activities, and exhibits they design may have narrow appeal and lead people from nondominant cultures to perceive them as directed by and designed for the dominant group. Cecilia Garibay, principal of the Garibay Group, points to a number of indicators identified through research that can support this perception, including the lack of diverse staff, a feeling that the content is not culturally relevant, and the unavailability of bilingual or multilingual resources. In fact, recent research with various cultural groups suggests that these issues result in nondominant communities feeling unwelcome in museums.4

Approaching these problems with outreach efforts may inadvertently reinforce the image of informal settings as being part of the dominant culture. The term outreach itself implies that some communities may be external to the institution. Promoting collaboration, partnership, and diversity in power and ownership may provide greater opportunities for nondominant groups to see their own ways of thinking and meaning-making—or making sense of what they are seeing and experiencing—reflected in informal settings.

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

To this end, making adjustments such as providing labels or program content in multiple languages has been shown to make a significant difference. Not only does this practice help members of other cultures identify key elements in an informal experience, but it also facilitates conversation and enhances learning among intergenerational groups.5 That said, it is important to point out that providing content in multiple languages is a big undertaking for a museum or other provider of informal science learning experiences. It requires adjustments to the exhibition or program development process and incurs costs for translation, proofing, and production. It may also require tough choices regarding which languages and cultures to include. However, the additional investment is an important step toward providing more equitable learning experiences. Electronic labels on touchscreens equipped to display multiple languages, while expensive, can address a variety of challenges, including the option of providing more detailed information on request. Alternatively, another way to accomplish the same goal is to have a non-English-speaking mediator available to “talk through” the experience with the visitors. Again, a non-trivial investment.

Attention to language differences is only one component of designing for equity. It also is important to consider variation in beliefs, values, and norms of social interaction, such as variability in family structure, gender roles, and patterns of discourse (e.g., the role of questioning in a conversation). Many informal institutions nationwide are addressing these issues and modifying exhibitions to reflect these differences. The next case study is one such example. It describes how a large children’s museum, Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose, California, established an ongoing relationship with the city’s growing Vietnamese population; through this partnership, the museum was able to develop a significantly more inclusive learning experience. The museum’s work in this area highlights both its challenges and rewards.

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

everyday SCIENCE The Vietnamese Audience Development Initiative

In 2002, the Children’s Discovery Museum (CDM) launched its Vietnamese Audience Development Initiative to better understand San Jose’s growing Vietnamese community and to develop strategies for helping the museum better meet the community’s needs. San Jose is home to more residents of Vietnamese descent than any other city outside Saigon.

After gaining experience working with another cultural group—the Latino community—museum staff decided to begin working with the Vietnamese community. They also recognized that the Vietnamese community represents a fairly low percentage of its visitors and wanted to develop exhibitions and programs that would appeal to this audience.

Based on the success of the Latino Audience Development Initiative, the Vietnamese initiative used an outreach model that involved a three-phase process:

  1. Community assessment and relationship building;

  2. Development of an operational strategy, an exhibition, educational programs, an event, and marketing and governance strategies; and

  3. Full-scale implementation of developed strategies.

From the outset, the initiative brought in advisers from the Vietnamese community to build long-term relationships and to help with exhibition and program planning. “We held focus groups to find out what was important to Vietnamese visitors,” says Jenni Martin, director of education. “We learned about some cultural icons and discussed the pros and cons of having the labels translated into Vietnamese. Throughout our collaboration, the welcoming message that we sent was very important.”


The Community’s Perceptions


An analysis of the data from the focus groups shed some light on what the Vietnamese look for in their leisure destinations and how CDM did—and did not—meet their needs. Many Vietnamese parents saw a number of positive aspects to the CDM experience, including

  • a safe, clean environment,

  • important focus on math and science,

  • excellent customer service and friendly staff,

  • valuable exhibits for younger children, and

  • genuine efforts to reach out to the Vietnamese community.

However, focus group participants also pointed out many barriers to visiting the museum, such as the cost of admission, lack of transportation, parking fees, and the location. More specifically, many first-generation respondents were not comfortable with the location of the museum, which is not close to areas of high concentration of Vietnamese, making the neighborhood less familiar. They also found the logistics of paying for parking challenging. Furthermore, the lack of Vietnamese-speaking staff, particularly at the museum entrance, made it difficult

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

for some families to communicate, contributing to their lack of comfort.

It also appears that perceptions of museums were a barrier. The word “museum” seemed to carry negative connotations for a lot of families. Respondents saw museums as passive, old, and academic versus interactive and engaging. In their minds, museums were associated with places that display old historical artifacts for visitors to view but not necessarily touch and interact with. Many focus group participants did not see how CDM provided more educational and fun experiences; in some cases, they weren’t even sure what the goals of the museum were, despite having visited the museum before participating in the focus group discussions.

Values related to education more broadly may have played a role in these perceptions. Traditionally education is highly valued in Vietnamese culture and is perceived as being the sole responsibility of the school system and the teachers. Parents tend to keep some distance from their children’s education. In addition, to some extent play and learning are seen as two distinct activities. This perception may be one of the reasons that focus group participants were not clear on the goals of the children’s museum, which is intended to be both fun and educational.

Generational differences in the Vietnamese community also emerged. First-generation members, or those born outside the United States, tend to speak Vietnamese in the home and tend to live in more insular communities. They value their cultural traditions and enjoy sharing and talking about their memories of life and traditions in Vietnam.

Individuals who immigrated to the United States as children (referred to as 1.5 generation) and second-generation members (those born in the United States) are more likely to be acculturated, may speak the Vietnamese language but have limited reading and writing abilities, and in general are less tied to Vietnamese customs. They enjoy seeing their traditions reflected in their community and like the idea of exposing their children to the traditions. However, they also value multicultural perspectives and seek to instill in their children respect for all cultures.


Planning an Exhibition for the Vietnamese Community


One of the first major projects for the partners in the initiative was to plan a museum exhibition on mathematics and science called Secrets of Circles. The goal of the exhibition was to introduce young children to the concept of a circle as a geometric shape seen in nature and their everyday life. The exhibition included stations at which visitors can use a compass to draw circles; explore the rolling and spinning patterns of three-dimensional circles; and observe spinning circles that change into cylinders, a sphere, and a torus. Throughout the exhibition, children and their caregivers learn about the math, science, and beauty of this shape.

Based on feedback from the community and their own research, museum designers incorporated some key Vietnamese cultural icons into the exhibition. For example, bamboo was selected as the main building material for the exhibition, and the Vietnamese round boat and a rice sieve were used as examples of circular objects. Museum staff also deliberated about whether to translate the labels into Vietnamese. Despite their awareness that younger Vietnamese people may not read the language, they decided to move forward with the translations. “It was a good decision,” says Martin. “In particular, first-generation Vietnamese were glad to see the text and graphics in their language.”

According to the summative evaluation of Secrets of Circles completed by Allen and Associates, many of the exhibition’s elements succeeded in helping families feel more comfortable at the museum.6

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×
Children explore the Vietnamese round boat, an icon of this culture.

Children explore the Vietnamese round boat, an icon of this culture.

Many visitors especially enjoyed seeing the round boat, which sparked conversation about their lives in Vietnam: As one visitor stated, “The round boat reminds me of the area where I used to live in Vietnam. This kind of boat is popular in the middle of the country. In the mornings, I used to walk to the beach to see the fish, shrimps, or crabs unloaded from these boats. The bamboo, the pulley, and the rice sieve on the wall all remind me of the good times in Vietnam.”

Other visitors, however, were concerned that too many Asian elements were incorporated into the exhibition along with the Vietnamese ones. One visitor said that “the Circles exhibits should make it clear whether the theme is countries in Asia, like China, India, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, or just the Vietnamese culture, when you have Chinese characters on the hats and Chinese lanterns and umbrellas.”

Martin observed that the use of Chinese cloth hats turned out to be particularly problematic for Vietnamese visitors. “We started out with traditional Vietnamese straw hats, but they did not hold up, which made them a potential safety hazard,” explains Martin. “Making the decision to change to the cloth Chinese hats had ramifications that we did not expect.”

To address some of these criticisms, the museum is already working to improve the exhibition. They have purchased a traditional cyclo (or pedicab) to add as another example of a circle. They also are considering adding a Vietnamese drum.

It is interesting to note that much of the negative response to the exhibition, especially the inclusion of non-Vietnamese elements, came from first-generation Vietnamese. Generation 1.5 and second-generation Vietnamese were much less particular about those issues and were very enthusiastic about the exhibition. One community leader felt that despite these problematic details, the exhibition captured the essence of what she considered to be

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

Vietnamese: “I love the look of it, coming in to the bamboo makes it really comfortable…. Sometimes science exhibits are more professional or academic, and less inviting. But this one with the umbrellas, it’s a really fun place to be in. And it reminds me of Vietnam, just the different bamboo that I’ve seen in my life, it makes me really comfortable. And the fabrics and colors feel very rich.”


Progress Made, More Work Ahead


From the outset, the initiative brought in advisers from the Vietnamese community to build long-term relationships and to help with exhibition and program planning. The evaluation of the initiative indicated that museum staff have developed very strong and solid relationships with community advisers. Advisers noted that they felt the partnership was a positive one, in which everyone’s ideas were heard and which gave them an opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences. What’s more, the advisers expressed great appreciation for being invited to participate and partner with CDM.

The strong relationships forged with advisers have resulted in a cadre of people deeply committed to the mission of the museum and the vision of better serving the Vietnamese community. These advisers mentioned that their ongoing involvement emerged from the museum staff’s commitment to diversity, manifested in the open, collaborative way they worked with the advisers.

While relationships with the advisers are strong overall, the most active and supportive partners were those who worked at organizations whose mission closely aligned with that of CDM. These partners not only understood what the museum offers, but also noted that their own organizations are working toward similar goals, such as education; as a result, these organizations were invested in the project. Because of the crucial role that partners play in the initiative and the fact that many are already stretched in terms of time and money, advisers commented on the need to expand community relationships beyond the current team.

The experience working on the exhibition and the initiative as a whole has been an eye-opening one for the museum staff. For one thing, the staff discovered that developing an understanding of and competence with a culture is an ongoing process. In fact, according to the Garibay Group’s final evaluation, even after working on the project for several years, many staff members still felt tentative about their decisions and were concerned that they may inadvertently offend Vietnamese community members. One recommendation made by the evaluator that may help considerably is to hire Vietnamese staff who can serve as “cultural translators” for the museum staff who are not Vietnamese, helping to bridge the gap between the museum’s culture and that of the Vietnamese community.

Although staff members learned a lot from the initiative, they recognize they still have a long way to go. “Being involved in the Initiative has raised many questions for me,” says Martin. “I’m still not completely satisfied that we have been successful in our work with the Vietnamese community. We would like to continue to build that relationship.”7

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

This case study illustrates the value of drawing on participants’ cultural practices when designing informal learning environments. This can be accomplished by incorporating everyday language, linguistic practices, and local cultural experiences. While designers of informal programs and spaces for science learning have long recognized the importance of building on participants’ prior knowledge and experiences, the integral role of culture in shaping knowledge and experience is not always appreciated. There are many challenges to forming true collaborations resulting in programs, exhibitions, and activities that integrate traditional knowledge, beliefs, and practices with the knowledge and practices of Western science. However, the CDM’s Vietnamese initiative demonstrates that success is possible.

Indeed, research and evaluation on other efforts in museums to better address diversity show that the resulting enhancements can improve learning. For example, bilingual interpretive labels in English and Spanish in communities with large Latino populations allowed adult members who were less proficient in English to read the labels and discuss the content with their children, directly increasing attention and improving learning outcomes.8 In another case, providing a Spanish-speaking mediator promoted more scientific dialogue. Finally, in a bilingual summer science camp at an aquarium offered in English and Spanish, participating girls were very positive about the experience in part because they learned science terminology and concepts in both languages and thus could better communicate with their parents (who were predominantly Spanish-speaking) about what they were doing and learning. This increased their confidence and helped bridge the program and home environments.9

“There are many challenges to forming true collaborations resulting in programs, exhibitions, and activities that integrate traditional knowledge, beliefs, and practices with the knowledge and practices of Western science.”

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

DESIGNING INFORMAL SCIENCE EXPERIENCES FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

Another group that is often excluded in informal science settings is people with disabilities. With the number of people with cognitive, physical, and sensory disabilities currently making up a significant portion (18 percent) of the population, this group also needs to be considered in the planning and development of informal science experiences.

People with disabilities face multiple obstacles when trying to take advantage of these opportunities. Some issues are physical; for example, navigating a space can be problematic for people in wheelchairs and for those who are blind. Other issues, however, are related to a culture gap that must be bridged, much like cultural differences between various ethnic groups and informal science settings. Removing cultural barriers, however, is much more difficult than addressing physical ones.

Exhibit and program designs that serve visitors who face physical, sensory, or cognition challenges tend to benefit all visitors: larger font sizes and improved lighting are essential for vision-impaired visitors but also make any visitor less tired from reading. “Universal design,” the practice of accommodating all visitors regardless of their ability levels, tends to make designed learning spaces accessible and useful for all.

The following case study explains how designers at the Museum of Science, Boston, went about this task as they planned and developed an exhibition called Making Models. As planners at CDM did, Museum of Science staff worked closely with members of the targeted communities to make the experience both accessible and equitable.

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

KEY STEPS TO BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH COMMUNITIES

If there is one lesson that can be learned from the experience of the CDM, it is the importance of building strong relationships with communities of nondominant groups. The museum accomplished this goal by forming an advisory committee at the beginning of the project, and its assistance proved essential to the program. But even with the committee’s guidance, subtle differences within the community, such as differences in attitudes between first and subsequent generations, were not recognized until after important decisions had already been made.

Other institutions have also begun their work with different cultural groups by starting at the community level. At the Exploratorium, for example, museum staff recognized how little they knew about both the Latino and Asian communities that visited the museum or could potentially visit. As a result, they set out to learn more about these communities before doing any program planning.

In 2004, the Exploratorium began the learning process by going out into both communities to conduct informational interviews and recruit members for their advisory committee. Through collaboration with these leaders, the Exploratorium discovered that overcoming the language barrier is essential, along with developing a program that has some cultural significance. As the first step in reaching out to these two communities, the Exploratorium developed a series of public programs.

The first of the three, Ancient Observatories: Chichen Itza, used a compelling science topic as its starting point. The program was enriched through the addition of cultural activities and interpretation. It was conducted in two languages—English and Spanish. The next effort, Science of Dragon Boats, began with a cultural topic that was enhanced through the addition of science activities and demonstrations. The third program, Magnitude X: Preparing for the Big One, emphasized the relevance of a science topic to daily life and added activities and demonstrations to make this point. This program was conducted in three languages staggered over the course of the day. There was an English session, a Chinese one, and a Spanish one. “This was not easy to pull off,” notes Garibay, who worked with the Exploratorium on its front-end evaluation. “It was an indication that museum staff took this work very seriously.”

The experiences of both CDM and the Exploratorium point to several strategies that could be applied to other informal science environments. These strategies are summarized below.

  • Draw on cultural practices of the learners. The language, practices, and experiences of visitors clearly affect their experience. By becoming aware of some of these practices, professionals in informal science can incorporate them into their settings. CDM had success with this strategy by incorporating cultural icons, such as the round boat, into its exhibition.

  • Develop bi- or multicultural labels. Not only can labels translated in different languages provide specific content to diverse audiences, but also they can spark conversation and meaning-making, especially among intergenerational groups with varying language abilities. Garibay notes that bilingual labels allow adult visitors who were less proficient in English to read the labels and then discuss the content with their children, directing their attention to important features of the exhibit.

  • Build relationships with the community. Working with community-based representatives from nondominant cultures is an essential part of the process. CDM’s Jenni Martin notes the role that the Vietnamese community played throughout the initiative: “Working with the community is part of our mission as a children’s museum,” she says. “Leveraging trust with our partners, which include a community advisory group and the Vietnamese language media, has been critical to the success of our initiative.” Community leaders also can demystify museums (or other informal learning settings) for members of their community and help them understand the full range of available programs and activities.

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

everyday SCIENCE Culturally Relevant Exhibits for People with Disabilities

The Museum of Science, Boston, has a long-standing commitment to developing exhibits for people with disabilities. More than 20 years ago, Betty Davidson, a museum exhibit planner who was in a wheelchair herself, paved the way by working with a team to redesign a diorama exhibit with multisensory components. Christine Reich, manager of research and evaluation, drew inspiration from that early work during the design of Making Models. The goal of this exhibition is to explain what a model is, present examples of different models, and give visitors the opportunity to experience how to make models. Their hope was to ensure not only that people with disabilities would have access to the exhibition, but also that they would be able to learn the science behind making models, largely because the material was presented in a culturally sensitive way.

Reich and the other members of the Making Models team set the bar high. They wanted to create some exhibits for people with many disabilities: wheelchair users, those who are blind or have low vision, and people who are deaf or hard of hearing. To accomplish this goal, they organized a community advisory group that consisted of people with various disabilities who were also experts on access, representatives from state agencies, or activists in the field. One member of the group, a science illustrator, had some expertise about modeling and also had multiple sclerosis. Another member had low vision and worked at a community services organization for older adults with low vision. Another, who was in a wheelchair, could move only his hands; this individual had extensive knowledge about psychology and the arts. Each advisory group member brought a much-needed perspective to the conversation.

The elements in the exhibition ended up incorporating many of the ideas discussed by the advisory group. For example, the human models were not just of able-bodied people. One of the male models was a tall African American with a prosthetic leg. The leg shown was not state of the art, either; it was the kind of prosthesis that ordinary people would probably purchase. And three models of hands showed them signing the letters A, S, and L, which stand for American Sign Language.

Interactives also were a part of the exhibition, and the key to designing them was to ensure that visitors could access them using multiple senses. “At

Making models by placing beaded metal chains on to magnetic boards allows visitors with physical disabilities to interact with exhibit materials.

Making models by placing beaded metal chains on to magnetic boards allows visitors with physical disabilities to interact with exhibit materials.

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

the model-making station,” explains Reich, “people with limited reach could create a model using beaded metal chains on a magnetic board. At another station, they could build a model by pressing buttons.”

Two particularly innovative options allowed visitors to build models using light or sound. On a stage, visitors could manipulate color, the position of light, and its intensity to create a seasonal image, such as a sunset in winter or a sunrise on a summer day. The buttons and knobs that manipulated the light were easily reachable without moving, and there were places where visitors could rest their wrists.

At the sound station, visitors could select sounds from a series of electronic files to create a scene. Sounds included snoring, meowing, an alarm going off, or people chatting. Like the light stage, the sound models were created by pressing buttons and turning knobs.

Throughout the exhibition, visitors had access to audio and text labels, so learning was possible through either mode. The availability of multiple modalities for learning also meant that a sighted visitor could explore the exhibition with a friend with low vision, or that parents could have different ways to explain ideas related to the science to their children. The exhibition area also was easy for individuals in wheelchairs to navigate.


The Impact of the Exhibition


Did these adaptations increase the ability of disabled visitors to engage with the exhibits and to learn the science? According to the summative evaluation report,10in many ways, they did. For example, those with mobility impairments—wheelchair and scooter users and amputees—could get around without any trouble. One obstacle reported, however, was that objects in a case were hard to see, and an amputee noted the need to have more places to sit down.

Blind and low-vision visitors, however, did find some parts of the exhibition difficult to access. Some expressed disappointment that they couldn’t touch the objects described in the audio, while others were frustrated if they had trouble getting the sound to work. One blind visitor suggested the following: “The exhibit needs an overall orientation, and a Braille map would be helpful, too. Some of the stations need to provide more feedback to blind visitors in order to be accessible…. Some type of clearer pathway would benefit some disabled visitors.”

The report also revealed that even though it is extremely difficult to make every exhibit accessible to every visitor, enough options were available, making the experience equitable in the opportunities it provided for learning. According to the evaluation report, about one-third of these visitors said their understanding of models changed as a result of the exhibition, a response rate similar to that of able-bodied visitors. Yet there was still room for improvement.

“The goal is to make sure that there are enough experiences so that all visitors feel included,” says Reich. “And some exhibits carry more weight than others. If people are excluded from ‘landmark exhibits,’ they feel like they missed out on the experience.”

Moving forward, Reich notes that many museums, including the Science Museum of Minnesota and the North Carolina Museum of Life Sciences, are working hard on issues of accessibility and equity. But there is much to learn. “Professionals want a checklist, a list of items they can check off and then say that they have done everything right,” says Reich. “But that’s not the way this works. What is really involved is a willingness to engage in a process of involvement and engagement, a change in mindset, and a re-assessment of what is ‘normal.’ Then people will realize that they need to tend to all these issues in order to reach everyone.”10

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

INTEGRATING NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE WITH SCIENCE

In our discussion of the importance of culture in science learning, we have focused on how informal learning institutions can partner with members of the community, particularly those who represent nondominant groups, to rethink the way the institutions approach designing programs, exhibits, and other activities. When successful, these kinds of initiatives integrate elements drawn from the nondominant culture with scientific ideas and practices and offer access points to science that may previously have been unavailable to members of the group.

The role of culture and the need for collaboration are particularly important when the beliefs, language, and cultural practices of a particular group have historically been devalued or even suppressed. The experience of many Native American tribes provides one such example. Native Americans have long been disenfranchised from their land and culture, and they have even been discouraged from speaking their languages and carrying out traditional ceremonies. As a result, the value of native knowledge and their beliefs about the natural world have often gone unrecognized; in fact, many people perceive a conflict between native understanding of the natural world and scientific understanding.

The need to make science education meaningful for Native Americans has long been recognized by respected leaders in the field. Thirty years ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) called for using an ethnoscientific as well as bilingual approach to teaching science in particular contexts.11 In response, scholars called for science education that directly relates to the lives of native students and tribal communities. Scholars such as Glen Aikenhead, who is an expert in this field, agree that to be most effective, learning environments must be connected and relevant to each particular Native American tribe.12

Native Science Field Centers, supported by the efforts of the Hopa Mountain program, strive to create such environments in their year-round programs for elementary and middle school students. These programs connect traditional culture and language with Western science. Currently there are three Native Science Field Centers—one on the Blackfeet Reservation in collaboration with Blackfeet Community College (Montana), one on the Wind River Reservation in collaboration with Fremont County School District No. 21 (Wyoming), and one on the Pine Ridge Reservation in collaboration with Oglala Lakota College (South Dakota). The following case study focuses on the Blackfeet Native Science Field Center.

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

everyday SCIENCE Merging Native Culture and Language with Science

During one of their after-school field trips, youth participating in the Blackfeet Native Science Field Center went out to gather willow. Before they began, the group huddled in a circle, recited a prayer in their language, and held hands while making an offering of tobacco. Helen Augare, director of the center, explained that the youth are learning that this is the respectful way to proceed before picking plants. By practicing this tradition, students learn that they have a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth and that they should take only what they need.

The participants then started their hike through knee-deep snow and thick brush to find and gather willow for their projects. They planned to travel back to their meeting place on the campus of Blackfeet Community College and use the willow to learn the process of constructing backrests and snow-shoes—technologies that their ancestors engineered generations before them.

Activities such as this one are part of the Native Science Field Centers, whose overarching goal is to merge Western science concepts with traditional ecological knowledge of tribal communities. The program, launched in 2006, is held year-round, with four 6-week sessions that run in concert with the seasons. During the school year, participants meet three times a week, and during the summer they come every day. The Blackfeet site is designed to provide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning opportunities for youth and adults by introducing them to culturally significant sites, birds, plants, and animals. Activities incorporate their tribal language and offer learning enrichment through presentations by tribal elders and professionals.

The program is a community-wide effort. An advisory board ensures that program developers are implementing traditional knowledge in an appropriate way and provides guidance and support in developing cultural curriculum materials and finding resources. Parents, teachers, and tribal elders contribute by donating materials for youth projects, sharing their knowledge, and volunteering their time during activities.

Buy-in for recruiting and retention is achieved during the program’s orientation session for parents, who are generally amazed at how much their children are learning. “We’re trying to do more than just teach biology and ecology, and even more than just teach culture or history,” Augare explains. “We’re trying to show kids the spiritual element—how to take that in and make it a part of their worldview.”

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
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A big part of the program is introducing participants to the land by monitoring sites and collecting data about culturally significant plant and animal species. “We went to tribal leaders to ask them what animals to include,” says Augare. “Then we explain how they are part of the ecosystem, which they have a responsibility to care for.”

To reinforce the importance of care for the land and the plants and animals that depend on it, the group worked with community members to put on a skit about climate change. A teacher fluent in the native language wrote the skit and helped the kids learn their lines—all in the Blackfeet language. The show emphasized how lessons can be learned from animal behavior and by observing the balance of the four elements—wind, fire, water, and land. Learning these lessons is meant to allow the Blackfeet to adapt to climate change and keep mother Earth healthy.

Over the long term, the program is working to build an interest among native people in pursuing careers in science. With professionals from the community serving as role models, this generation has opportunities not available to their grandparents. Because of improved education systems and positive learning environments, there are a growing number of Native Americans studying science and selecting careers in different disciplines. More and more, native students feel proud of their heritage and celebrate the contributions to science made by their ancestors. They also are motivated to work toward the advancement of their tribal nation.

The Blackfeet program is still quite new, and its leaders are currently working on evaluation tools that reflect the indigenous perspective. Their goal is to be able to demonstrate how the spiritual connection can be a motivating factor in learning. “The Blackfeet are proud of their culture and proud of their history,” says Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer, executive director of the Hopa Mountain Program. “This program, rooted in their values, will help give today’s children the foundation they need to make informed decisions about their land and water when, as adults, they are called upon to do so.”13

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

The Blackfeet Native Science Field Center program shows the potential power of informal learning experiences in science for engaging individuals from groups that are historically underrepresented in the field. In fact, several studies suggest that informal environments for science learning may be particularly effective for youth from historically nondominant groups—groups with limited sociopolitical status in society, who are often marginalized because of their cultural, language, and behavioral differences.

Evaluations of museum-based and after-school programs such as the Blackfeet Native Science Field Center suggest that these experiences can support academic gains for children and youth from nondominant groups. Programs and experiences that are successful often draw on local issues. Several case studies of community science programs targeting youth document their influence on participants’ engagement with science and on their course selections and career choices. In these programs, children and youth play an active role in shaping the subject and process of inquiry, which may include local health or environmental issues about which they subsequently educate the community.



Informal institutions concerned with science learning are making efforts to address inequity and encourage the participation of diverse communities. However, these efforts typically stop short of more fundamental and necessary changes to the organization of content and experiences to better serve diverse communities. Much more attention needs to be paid to the ways in which culture shapes knowledge, orientations, and perspectives. A deeper understanding is needed of the relations among cultural practices in families, practices preferred in informal settings for learning, and the cultural practices associated with science. The conceptions of what counts as science need to be examined and broadened in order to identify the strengths that those from nondominant groups bring to the field.

We highlight two promising insights into how to better support science learning among people from nondominant backgrounds. First, informal environments for learning should be developed and implemented with the interests and concerns of community and cultural groups in mind: project goals should be

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

mutually determined by educators and the communities and cultural groups they serve. Second, the cultural variability of social structures should be reflected in educational design. For example, developing peer networks may be particularly important to foster sustained participation of nondominant groups. Designed spaces that serve families should include consideration of visits by extended families.

Things to Try

To apply the ideas presented in this chapter to informal settings, consider the following:

  • Think about how to design environments and materials that are compatible with different cultural groups you are serving. For example, would it be helpful to design an exhibition or a program for one specific group, or would incorporating cultural icons into an existing exhibition be more effective in your setting? Would adding multilingual labels be useful for your multiple audiences? Would programs in other languages be important to offer? Would it be useful to involve bi- or multilingual interpreters or docents?

  • Explore and nurture partnerships with local communities. Determine which groups you want to work with and then invite representatives from these groups to partner with you to define goals and serve as advisers throughout the project. Cooperate or collaborate early to ensure true partnership on equal grounds. Allow yourself to question cultural assumptions.

  • Learn more about the cultural ramifications of learning. Invite a local expert in this field to come to your venue to discuss how culture affects the work being done there. What do you need to learn about visitors to your setting? How can you make your environment more culturally relevant? Contact colleagues in your field who may already have garnered considerable expertise.

  • Be informed about and coordinate approaches with neighboring venues. Contact nearby informal science learning environments to discuss their strategies for working with different members of the community. Can you work together to develop a joint program or activity that will be particularly meaningful to the different groups you are trying to serve?

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
×

For Further Reading

Calabrese Barton, A. (1998). Reframing “science for all” through the politics of poverty. Educational Policy, 12, 525-541.

National Research Council. (2009). Diversity and equity. Chapter 7 in Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. P. Bell, B. Lewenstein, A.W. Shouse, and M.A. Feder (Eds.). Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Web Resources

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose: http://www.cdm.org/index.asp?f=0


Cosmic Serpent: http://www.cosmicserpent.org


Exploratorium: http://www.exploratorium.edu/


Hopa Mountain: http://www.hopamountain.org/nativeScience.html


Making Models: http://www.exhibitfiles.org/making_models


Museum of Science: http://www.mos.org/

Suggested Citation:"7 Culture, Diversity, and Equity." National Research Council. 2010. Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12614.
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Practitioners in informal science settings--museums, after-school programs, science and technology centers, media enterprises, libraries, aquariums, zoos, and botanical gardens--are interested in finding out what learning looks like, how to measure it, and what they can do to ensure that people of all ages, from different backgrounds and cultures, have a positive learning experience.

Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments, is designed to make that task easier. Based on the National Research Council study, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits, this book is a tool that provides case studies, illustrative examples, and probing questions for practitioners. In short, this book makes valuable research accessible to those working in informal science: educators, museum professionals, university faculty, youth leaders, media specialists, publishers, broadcast journalists, and many others.

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