Older adults are a unique population to which informal institutions are increasingly attending. Their abilities, needs, and interests—like those of other learners—require special attention in order to create programs that serve them. Although there have been few studies of older adult science learners in informal settings, a review of the general literature on learning in older adults is useful for understanding what issues in science learning might be best explored.
Like other populations and groups (discussed in Chapter 7), older adults are often misunderstood. One aspect of older learners that gets little attention, but which is especially important for thinking about educational programming in informal environments, is their extensive experience base and knowledge. Older adults have a long history of family life, occupational experiences, and leisurely pursuits. In contrast to children, who are “universal novices” (Brown and DeLoache, 1978), older adults draw on decades of experience. They have rich histories and knowledge that they can elaborate on and from which they can draw analogies to access new concepts and insights.
Older adults can also be stereotyped as suffering from memory decline and other aspects of mental slowing, and this tends to lead to an erroneous assumption that they lack ability. Such stereotyped views are often conveyed and upheld broadly, including by older adults themselves (Parr and Siegert, 1993; Ryan, 1992). Craik and Salthouse (2000) have reviewed the literature and report that older adults do face a steady loss in what is called fluid intelligence or processing capacity. This decline can adversely affect the performance of everyday tasks and learning through a weakened capacity for attention (Salthouse, 1996), processing speed (Madden, 2001), and various types of memory performance (Bäckman, Small, and Wahlin, 2001). Because older adults often also face declines in hearing, vision, and motor control, these deficits in fluid intelligence can appear exaggerated. Studies by McCoy et al. (2005) concluded that the extra effort expended by a hearing-impaired listener in order to successfully perform a task comes at the cost of processing resources that would otherwise be directed at memory encoding.
Studies of declines in fluid intelligence on computer use in older adults indicate that older adults make more errors and perform at a lower level than younger people on a variety of common tasks (Charness, Schumann, and Boritz, 1992; Czaja, 2001; Czaja and Sharit, 1993; Echt, Morrell, and Park, 1998). In addition, they demonstrate a relative difficulty with editing out unnecessary information (Rogers and Fisk, 2001). As the baby boom generation ages, its familiarity with computers and the web will increase, and the majority of boomers in the United States will use the web on a regular basis (Czaja et al., 2006). Website designers and web-assisted programmers who serve these aging populations should strongly consider these findings and make adjustments.