Rural and small town libraries are one of the newest forces being tapped to improve the science literacy of Americans through lifelong, "free-choice learning" opportunities in which people learn scientific, engineering and technical information somewhere other than school.
A new initiative, supported by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, will help rural librarians tap into scientific expertise in their local communities, organize local events, provide video and other supporting materials, and essentially create adult "science clubs" across the nation.
"Most Americans gain the bulk of their knowledge about science somewhere other than school," said John Falk, a professor of science education at Oregon State University, co-principal investigator on this project and one of the nation's leaders in promoting free-choice learning initiatives.
Adult science literacy in the United States is actually high, compared to other nations and younger students.
"However, many rural areas and small communities don't have easy access to the range of museums, zoos, aquariums, high-speed Internet connections and other facilities that can make free-choice learning accessible," Falk said. "With this program we hope to identify the types of programs and topics that will be of interest to people in these areas, and give them new ways to explore those interests."
Falk and Lynn Dierking, also a professor of science education at OSU and a national leader in this movement, say it is gaining increasing interest and may provide another avenue to increased science literacy -- and one that is not about children spending more hours in school.
"Average Americans spend less than 5 percent of their life in classrooms, and an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school," Dierking and Falk wrote in one recent analysis. "We believe that non-school resources, used by learners across their lifetimes from childhood onward, actually account for the vast majority of American science learning."
Educational experts across the nation increasingly point to the low levels of science knowledge by graduating high school and college students, and the implications this has for technological progress, economic growth and new jobs. But most American adults have similar levels of science knowledge as their foreign counterparts, and consistently outperform adults from such places as Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The real problem, the OSU researchers say, is that at the elementary, middle and high school levels, students don't always take advantage of learning opportunities outside school, which tend to reinforce and complement what they learn in traditional science courses. This is particularly the case for children from many low-income and minority families.
Various approaches are being developed to deal with this situation. OSU is a leader in an NSF-supported Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education, and involved in other initiatives to engage children and youth of all backgrounds in free-choice science learning, such as a project supporting girls' engagement in science. Another major study is beginning soon to document how children and youth in Portland, Ore., use resources, both in and out of school, to learn about science.
In the U.S., according to Falk and Dierking, free-choice learning is how most adults learn most of what they know about science. They actually know a lot, but they don't get it from school.
"Free-choice learning can be watching a nature show on television, researching the Internet about a health issue when a family member is sick, going to a museum or just reading about a topic that interests you," Falk said. "And some of it is parents who try to be supportive with their children, taking them to places where they can learn. We're just beginning to learn what all the possibilities are."
An important aspect of these initiatives, the researchers said, is helping families who may not have a history of using free-choice learning with their children, particularly since poor and minority children are consistently the least benefited by school.
In a recent paper published in American Scientist, Falk and Dierking note that the dominant assumption of educational policy for decades has been that school is the only place where children learn. This assumption is wrong, they said, and a heavier emphasis on school may not address lingering educational concerns. The OSU researchers argue that rather than increasing school time, as a nation we should invest in expanding the quality of out-of-school experiences for all children.
It is critical that learning about science in these contexts be interesting, fun and engaging, they said. It can't be approached as if it's just one more class.
"If out-of-school programs are merely devices to extend the school day with more hours of the same pedagogical experiences, they are unlikely to be successful, particularly in the long term," the OSU researchers wrote. "In fact, it's more likely that they will do more harm than good, by reinforcing stereotypes of science and science professionals as dry, boring and school-like."
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