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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
previously known, realized, or appreciated. While these are cued reflections rather than spontaneous ones, they provide evidence that visitors can and do reflect on their own learning in designed settings. For example:
You learn—it’s amazing.… I’m going on 74 and … and you’re learning something new everyday. And when you see a statement like scientists still don’t agree about algae whether they’re plants. You know they work a little like a plant but then they don’t and so some say, “yes it is” and some say “no it isn’t.” I’m looking at the spores—amazing tiny little specimens underneath the microscope—the variety. It’s quite intriguing. I think anyone would find it interesting (male, age 73 years) (Jones, 2005, p. 6).
Strand 5: Engaging in Scientific Practices
By the end, [my son] was working collaboratively with four other kids, which was very nice. They were total strangers. That is how it happens in the lab sometimes when you are working on one thing and your colleagues get together and you start working on something together…. He would try something, and then another kid would try something. When it did not work, they would try a different way (National Museum of American History; female, age 43, with male, age 7) (Korn, 2004, p. 42).
In informal settings, participation in science is expected and deliberately designed into the experiences. Children do projects with each other, their parents, or other adults, such as group leaders and museum staff; adults on nature trails or families in zoos and botanical gardens walk and observe together. They use tools and instruments like microscopes or rulers that may be helpful for learning (Jones, 2003; Ma, 2002) but are not necessarily scientific equipment.
Verbal communication, or discourse, is a particularly prevalent and well-studied form of scientific practice in designed settings. In fact, the importance of discourse in learning is broadly acknowledged across a range of subject areas and settings (e.g., Cazden, 2001; National Research Council, 2007) and is of considerable interest to classroom-based science education. Researchers have found that successful science education depends on the learners’ involvement in forms of communication and reasoning that models that of scientific communities (Gee, 1994; Lemke, 1990; National Research Council, 2007). There is increasing interest in designing programs and exhibitions that explicitly support social mediation and conversation (e.g., Morrissey, 2002; Schauble and Bartlett, 1997).
Leinhardt and Knutson (2004) combined into a single learning model the notion of conversation as both an outcome and a means of learning. After studying exhibitions at five different types of museums, they listed four levels of visitors’ interpretation: listing, analysis, synthesis, and explanation.