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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
and building explanations of changes in the physical world. Throughout the school years, children and adolescents, with support, can piece together school-based and informal learning experiences to build scientific understanding of the natural world.
The drive to understand and explain the world continues into adulthood. As discussed in “Who Learns in Everyday Settings” (Chapter 4), over the life span, additional motivations stimulate science learning: pragmatic needs (e.g., dealing with health care issues, academic tasks, local environmental concerns), science-rich hobbies, and workplace tasks. Like children, adults (including scientists) pursue questions of personal interest and assemble evidence from their everyday experience to develop their understanding of the world. Increased memory capacity, reasoning, and metacognitive skills that come with maturation enable adult learners to explore science in new ways, summarized in Chapter 6 in the section “Programs for Older Learners.” Senior citizens retain many of these capabilities, and as they mature their interests change. Informal environments are of fundamental importance for supporting science learning by adults, particularly because they thrive in environments that acknowledge their needs and life experiences.
Conclusion 2: A great deal of science learning, often unacknowledged, takes place outside school in informal environments—including everyday activity, designed spaces, and programs—asindividuals navigate across a range of social settings.
Most people routinely circulate through a range of social settings that can support science learning. The committee found abundant evidence of learning in everyday life experiences, designed educational settings, and programs.
As discussed in Chapter 4, as individuals interact with the natural world and participate in family and community life, they develop knowledge about nature and about science-relevant interests and skills. Long-term, sophisticated science learning can occur through the individual and social processes (e.g., mentorship, reading scientific texts, watching educational television) associated with science-related elective pursuits and hobbies—for example, amateur astronomy clubs, robot-building leagues, and conservation groups.
Designed settings—including museums, science centers, zoos, aquariums, and nature centers—can also support science learning. Rich with educationally framed real-world phenomena, these are places where people can pursue and develop science interests, engage in science inquiry, and reflect on their experiences through conversations. There has been very little synthesis of this research to date. However, the committee compiled and reviewed extensive evidence from visitor studies, program evaluations, and design studies (Chapter 5) that sketch out the empirical evidence and the promise of designed settings for science learning.