Fostering a lifelong love of science outside the classroom

How do children learn science outside of the classroom? At a morning symposium on 20 February, titled "Learning Science in Informal Environments," an audience at the 2010 AAAS meeting in San Diego heard about an especially vivid example.

Threading the First Strand of Science Learning: Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, MA from Sara Cody on Vimeo.

When Mimi was three years old, she screamed when she saw a daddy long legs crawling on her wall. Her father wanted to calm her fear of insects, and he read that the local museum was hosting an "Insect-a-Palooza Day." There, Mimi and her father spent four hours learning about and handling all sorts of insects. A photo from the end of that day shows the outcome: Mimi holds a tarantula in the palm of her hand, completely engrossed.

Case studies such as Mimi's illustrated key points made by a panel of experts in informal science education. Their presentations revolved around the conclusions of a report by the same name, released in 2009 by the U.S. National Research Council.

The NRC report stated that informal science experiences and exposures can profoundly influence a child's attitudes toward science throughout life. These exposures include exploring zoos, aquaria and other public-education venues and science-related themes in popular culture and the media. Panelists discussed how each type of experience can affect a child's engagement with science.

"Our primary goal was to identify the sort of theoretical perspectives and assumptions and outcomes that guide the literature on learning science in informal environments, and then to identify the evidence of learning outcomes," said science communicator Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University, who moderated the symposium and contributed to the NRC report.

Panelists focused on the report's "Six Strands of Science Learning." This model of informal science education includes "sparking and developing interest and excitement, understanding scientific knowledge, engaging in scientific explanation and argument, understanding the scientific enterprise, engaging in scientific practice using the tools and language of science, and identifying with the scientific enterprise."

These six concepts intertwine to form a successful science learning experience, the report maintains.

Jenna Farrell, a meeting attendee from Massachusetts, felt the most important strand was the first: creating an initial interest in science.

"It focuses on the motivation to learn science, but students really need to have that motivation inside of them," Farrell said. "Either that has to be sparked by something, or they have that in them already."

"It may be really difficult to spark a student's interest, but once it's sparked, there's no telling where they'll go and what they'll do with it."

By applying and observing the various strands, the study's researchers concluded that "learning experiences across informal environments may positively influence children's science learning," said panelist Philip Bell of the University of Washington. Children exposed to these approaches change their attitudes toward science and are more likely to consider occupations in science—or simply will engage in more science-related hobbies throughout life, Bell said. Bell refers to this phenomenon as "life-long, life-wide, and life-deep learning."

According to Bell, life-long learning refers to the breadth of knowledge people gather in their lifetimes, from birth to death. Life-wide learning refers to how people spend their time engaging in certain learning environments. Life-deep learning arises from the aspects of culture that affect someone's life, such as religious, social and ethical values.

Marcia Linn, the symposium's discussant from the University of California, Berkeley, felt that informal science education has a broad impact: "It's an opportunity to advance the public's reliance on valid evidence, as well as to expand the audience for science inquiry."

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Sara Cody is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is graduating with a degree in journalism and a minor in biology. Her main interests are science, science outreach, multimedia, and print journalism. Contact her at scody110@gmail.com.

Feb. 24, 2010

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