SURROUNDED BY SCIENCE
Learning Science in Informal Environments
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS
500 Fifth Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20001
NOTICE: The project that is the subject of this publication was approved by the Governing Board of the National Research Council, whose members are drawn from the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. This book is based on the National Research Council report Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits (2009).
This project was supported by Grant No. ESI-0348841 between the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation with support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations or agencies that provided support for the project.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Surrounded by science : learning science in informal environments / Marilyn Fenichel and Heidi A. Schweingruber ; Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.
“Based on the NRC report, Learning science in informal environments: people, places and pursuits.”
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-309-13674-7 (pbk.) — ISBN 978-0-309-13675-4 (pdf)
1. Science—Study and teaching—Case studies. 2. Active learning. 3. Experiential learning. I. Schweingruber, Heidi A. II. National Research Council (U.S.). Board on Science Education. III. Title.
Additional copies of this publication are available from the
National Academies Press,
500 Fifth Street, N.W., Lockbox 285, Washington, DC 20055; (800) 624-6242 or (202) 334-3313 (in the Washington metropolitan area); Internet, http://www.nap.edu.
Copyright 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America
Suggested citation: Fenichel, M., and Schweingruber, H.A. (2010). Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments. Board on Science Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
BOARD ON SCIENCE EDUCATION
HELEN R. QUINN (Chair),
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford University
Learning Sciences, College of Education, University of Washington, Seattle
Washington, DC, Office, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Washington, Seattle
Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison
JERRY P. GOLLUB,
Department of Physics, Haverford College
Partnership for Student Success in Science, Synopsys, Inc., Mountain View, California
Morse College, Yale University
BRETT D. MOUDLING,
Utah Office of Education, Salt Lake City
Merck Institute for Science Education, Merck & Co., Inc., Rahway, New Jersey
SUSAN R. SINGER,
Department of Biology, Carleton College
CARL E. WIEMAN,
Department of Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder
WILLIAM B. WOOD,
Department of Cellular and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder
MARTIN STORKSDIECK, Director (since June 2009)
C. JEAN MOON, Director (until October 2007)
HEIDI A. SCHWEINGRUBER, Deputy Director
ANDREW W. SHOUSE, Senior Program Officer (until September 2008)
MICHAEL A. FEDER, Senior Program Officer
THOMAS KELLER, Senior Program Officer
VICTORIA N. WARD, Senior Program Assistant (until May 2008)
KELLY DUNCAN, Senior Program Assistant
PATRICIA HARVEY, Senior Program Assistant (until June 2009)
REBECCA KRONE, Senior Program Assistant
As children, many of us remember going on a family outing to a zoo, an aquarium, a planetarium, or a natural history museum. Although sometimes we may have approached such excursions warily, thinking they might prove boring, eventually there was something that caught our eye. Perhaps it was a chimpanzee staring back at us in a strangely familiar way or a shark taking a solitary swim in a custom-made tank. It could have been a moon rock brought back to Earth from one of the first manned space flights.
When, at the end of the outing, parents asked, “Did you have fun?” in spite of ourselves we usually had to say yes. But then they wanted to know something else: “What did you learn?” That question was far harder to answer.
Indeed, those working in science museums and other informal learning environments, including film and broadcast media; botanical gardens and nature centers; libraries; and youth, community, and out-of-school-time programs, increasingly are being called on to answer this question. Although people have participated in these activities for at least 200 years, only in the past few decades have practitioners and evaluators in the informal science community begun to study systematically what people learn, how they learn, and whether experiences in informal environments reinforce people’s identity as science learners. This work, still in its early stages, has proven to be challenging for several reasons.
For one thing, ideas about learning have become increasingly sophisticated. It turns out that learning is far more than simply accumulating content knowledge. It is also a social process, informed and enhanced by collaboration and discussion with other learners. In addition, “science learning” has its own particular characteristics. It encompasses the building of conceptual knowledge as well as mastering skills, such as observing, making predictions, designing experiments, and drawing conclusions based on data. What’s more, science learning has a cultural component. Science has its own language, tools, and practices. Part of the
learning process for nonscientists is to become familiar with the culture of science and figure out how it meshes with their own cultural perspectives.
Scientists constantly revise their understanding of how the world works based on emerging new evidence. For example, until recently, everyone considered Pluto to be a planet, but now the best minds in astronomy say otherwise. In the field of biology, there has been a shift in focus, moving from an emphasis on the structure and function of plants and animals to one on molecular and cell biology.
Many compelling current issues are related to scientific knowledge, which provides the background needed to make decisions about problems and to take advantage of opportunities. For example, although science cannot tell people what to do about climate change, it can provide the data necessary to realize that carbon dioxide emitted into the air, often through human activities, is greatly affecting the climate. The way people interpret that information—and whether they accept it—is based on their cultural context, values, and vision for the future. The same holds true for acceptance of a new avenue of study, such as stem cell research. Science presents the opportunity to pursue it, but people’s beliefs and values dictate whether they follow through.
One of the goals of informal science environments is to introduce learners to scientific skills and concepts, the culture of science, and the role science plays in decision making. While some of this can be learned in school, informal settings have an advantage in that they can reach people of all ages, with varying levels of interest and knowledge of science. What are effective ways to realize this goal? For example, what tools and strategies are needed to help practitioners in informal settings meet these challenges? What knowledge could help inform their practice?
This book strives to answer these questions. One of its key premises is that an understanding of current research about how people learn in general—as well as the specific challenges of learning science—can improve the quality of informal science offerings. For example, exhibits can become more interactive, which research says has the potential to provoke questions and elicit more thoughtful comments and conversations. Strategies used in commercially produced computer games can be put to use in “educational” games to generate excitement about science as well as to build players’ knowledge base. And out-of-school-time programs, especially those for nondominant groups, can be designed with an understanding of the participants’ culture.
These findings and others brought together in this book come from the National Research Council (NRC) report, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. This report, written by a committee
of 14 experts convened by NRC, includes the perspectives of developmental and cognitive psychologists, science educators, museum researchers and evaluators, social scientists, and professionals in the fields of youth and adult learning. This committee reviewed the most relevant peer-reviewed research, commissioned new papers on specialized topics, and held three public fact-finding meetings. Their report distilled what is known from research while also identifying what gaps remain in our knowledge about how to create effective informal science learning environments.
Along the way, the committee realized that its findings would have tremendous value to a wide range of practitioners. Educators, museum professionals, policy makers, university faculty, youth leaders, media specialists, publishers, and broadcast journalists are among those who could put these new insights to good use. As a result, this book was created with several purposes in mind: to introduce newcomers to a growing body of research, to enhance the knowledge base of mid-level professionals, and to provide seasoned professionals with a source that gathers the body of research together in an accessible format. For all of these audiences, the goal is to present what the committee sees as the best thinking to date on how people learn in informal science environments.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I, “Frameworks for Thinking About Science Learning,” lays the foundation for much of the research referred to throughout the book. The first chapter describes the range of informal environments for learning science, including everyday environments, designed environments, and programs, and then makes the point that these environments are developed by professionals who share common goals. These goals include a desire to engage participants in multiple ways, to provide opportunities for direct interaction with phenomena, and to acknowledge learners’ prior knowledge and interests. Chapter 2 builds on these ideas by focusing specifically on what it means to do and learn science. The chapter opens with a discussion of science as a human endeavor that involves specialized language, tools, and norms. It then introduces the strands of science learning, a framework that describes the range of knowledge, skills, interests, and practices involved in science learning. The strands framework is a tool that can be used to reflect on the broad range of competencies involved in learning science, to articulate learning goals, and to guide evaluation. The strands come up throughout the book in the descriptions of different types of informal environments and the type of learning that has occurred.
Part II, “Designing Experiences to Promote Science Learning,” focuses on different aspects of the research on learning and how it can be put to work by
practitioners, as well as assessment. Chapter 3 discusses specific strategies, such as the use of interactivity, that are effective in fostering the deeper, more flexible understanding of science that is exemplified by the strands. Chapter 4 highlights the social and cultural aspects of learning, exploring how individual learning is supported through interaction with more knowledgeable individuals and through the dynamic exchange of ideas. Chapter 5 discusses ways to enhance interest and motivation to learn and how a developed identity as a science learner is both a natural outcome of a highly motivated learner and a reason that people pursue varied informal learning experiences in science. Part II concludes with a chapter that explores the role of assessment in informal settings and the challenges inherent in this endeavor.
Part III, “Reaching Across Communities, Time, and Space,” emphasizes other variables that affect learning. Chapter 7 presents a detailed discussion of what is meant by “equity” in the context of informal science settings and how these environments can be made more accessible to diverse populations. Chapter 8 discusses how to develop effective learning experiences for learners across the life span—for children and youth, senior citizens, and other adults. Chapter 9, the final chapter in the book, looks to the future of informal science learning, with a discussion on how to extend learning experiences across different media and settings. It also examines the relationship between formal and informal science environments and discusses the value to the learner of creating stronger links between these two settings.
Throughout the book, case studies show how the principles and strategies emerging from research on learning can and are being employed by informal science educators across various settings. They also provide concrete examples to reflect on and critique, with the hope that they will generate new insights that will inform readers’ own work. For those who want to pursue the topics presented in each chapter in greater depth, a list of additional readings is included. Also, there is a list of “things to try” that provides suggestions for how to take ideas discussed in the chapter and begin to apply them. The “things to try,” however, are not detailed roadmaps for practice, but rather broad ideas that the reader may want to explore within his or her own institutional context.
A major goal of the book is to show the many ways that informal environments can support science learning and provide insight into how science can be made meaningful to people of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures—a value long
held dear in the informal science community. Columbia University physicist Brian Greene offers an eloquent explanation of this belief:
Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive, and reliable—a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations—for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on Earth—not because they are declared dogma but because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.
Through informal science learning, we can all experience this joy as our eyes are opened to the excitement and wonder that is science.
Heidi A. Schweingruber