Jan. 19, 2009 Each year, tens of millions of Americans, young and old, choose to learn about science in informal ways -- by visiting museums and aquariums, attending after-school programs, pursuing personal hobbies, and watching TV documentaries, for example. There is abundant evidence that these programs and settings, and even everyday experiences such as a walk in the park, contribute to people's knowledge and interest in science, says a new report from the National Research Council.
"Learning is broader than schooling, and informal science environments and experiences play a crucial role," said Philip Bell, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, and associate professor of learning sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. "These experiences can kick-start and sustain long-term interests that involve sophisticated learning. Think of the child who sees dinosaur skeletons for the first time on a family trip to a natural history museum, and then goes on to buy dinosaur models and books, do Web searches about dinosaurs, write school reports on the subject, and on and on."
The report notes that experiences in informal settings can significantly improve science learning outcomes for individuals from groups which are historically underrepresented in science, such as women and minorities. Evaluations of museum-based and after-school programs suggest that these programs may also support academic gains for children and youth in these groups.
More broadly, there is strong evidence that educational television can help people learn about science, although few studies have been done on the effects of other media, including digital media, video games, and radio. There is also some evidence that participation in informal science learning -- for example, volunteering in the collection of scientific data -- can promote informed civic engagement on science-related issues such as local environmental concerns, says the report.
The report offers recommendations for people who design programs in these settings, such as the creators of museum exhibits. The programs and environments should be interactive and designed with specific learning goals in mind. They should provide multiple ways for learners to engage with concepts within a single setting. And they should prompt visitors to interpret what they have learned in light of their prior experiences and interests.
In addition, educators should partner with local communities to develop exhibits and experiences. When possible, such exhibits and environments should be rooted in scientific problems, ideas, and activities that are meaningful to these local communities.
The report also offers recommendations for those on the front line -- the professional and volunteer staffs of institutions and programs who interact with the public about science. In discussing new science concepts, they should draw on learners' experience and knowledge by using everyday language, referring to common cultural experiences, and using familiar tools.
There are few good outcome measures to assess science learning in informal settings, and efforts to develop relevant measures have often been controversial, the report notes. Some people have advocated using the same standards as for school settings, while others have urged measuring outcomes based on peoples' perceptions of whether they have learned something. It is not productive to blindly adopt either purely academic goals or standards that are personally subjective, the report says. Evaluations should not be limited to factual recall or other narrow cognitive measures; rather, they should assess the range of capabilities that museums and similar settings are designed to nurture.
The report outlines six "strands" of science learning that can happen in informal settings, and these strands could help refine evaluations of how well people are learning in these environments. For example, learners can experience excitement and motivation to learn about phenomena in the natural and physical world. They can come to understand and use concepts and facts related to science. They can learn how scientists actually conduct their work using specialized tools and equipment. And they can develop an identity as someone who knows about, uses, and sometimes contributes to science.
The committee also pointed to the need for more professional development and a common knowledge base among scholars and educators in the field -- including a more widely shared language, values, learning theories, and standards of evidence. "There's a lot of good research and practice out there," said committee co-chair Bruce Lewenstein, professor of science communication at Cornell University. "Now we need to find better ways to bring that work together and continue extending it."
The report was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
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