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Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments
The Blackfeet Native Science Field Center program shows the potential power of informal learning experiences in science for engaging individuals from groups that are historically underrepresented in the field. In fact, several studies suggest that informal environments for science learning may be particularly effective for youth from historically nondominant groups—groups with limited sociopolitical status in society, who are often marginalized because of their cultural, language, and behavioral differences.
Evaluations of museum-based and after-school programs such as the Blackfeet Native Science Field Center suggest that these experiences can support academic gains for children and youth from nondominant groups. Programs and experiences that are successful often draw on local issues. Several case studies of community science programs targeting youth document their influence on participants’ engagement with science and on their course selections and career choices. In these programs, children and youth play an active role in shaping the subject and process of inquiry, which may include local health or environmental issues about which they subsequently educate the community.
Informal institutions concerned with science learning are making efforts to address inequity and encourage the participation of diverse communities. However, these efforts typically stop short of more fundamental and necessary changes to the organization of content and experiences to better serve diverse communities. Much more attention needs to be paid to the ways in which culture shapes knowledge, orientations, and perspectives. A deeper understanding is needed of the relations among cultural practices in families, practices preferred in informal settings for learning, and the cultural practices associated with science. The conceptions of what counts as science need to be examined and broadened in order to identify the strengths that those from nondominant groups bring to the field.
We highlight two promising insights into how to better support science learning among people from nondominant backgrounds. First, informal environments for learning should be developed and implemented with the interests and concerns of community and cultural groups in mind: project goals should be