Beyond the Classroom
Every year a virtual virus sweeps through the online world of Whyville, a social networking site for kids and teens. A child chatting online may suddenly find her sentences punctuated by the word “Achoo!” — a sign that she has caught the Whypox virus. Over the course of weeks, the virus spreads from user to user, eventually infecting thousands. Kids can watch how quickly the disease is spreading on charts — posted by the Whyville branch of the CDC — and speculate about how the virus is transmitted.
The Whypox epidemic, created by researchers at UCLA, is just one example of an informal effort to teach people about science. Every year millions of children and adults experience such learning opportunities by visiting museums and aquariums, attending after-school programs or lectures, or watching TV documentaries.
There is plenty of evidence that these activities — even something as simple as a walk in the park — can contribute to one’s knowledge of and interest in science, says a report from the National Research Council. And these settings can significantly improve learning outcomes for people from groups historically underrepresented in science.
The research base varies from setting to setting, however, and there are few generally agreed-upon ways to evaluate how much people learn in informal environments. Should evaluators use the same measures commonly used in school settings, or should they let the learners themselves define what they’ve learned? Neither blindly adopting academic goals nor embracing purely subjective standards is the answer, the report says. Instead, it offers six “strands” of science learning that take place in informal settings, and can inform evaluations of how well people are learning. For example, visitors can experience motivation to learn about phenomena in the natural and physical world, and learn how scientists conduct their work using specialized tools and equipment.
The report also offers advice to those on the front lines of informal education, such as museum staff. In discussing new science concepts, they should draw on learner’s existing knowledge and use everyday language. And those who design exhibits and other settings should partner with their communities to develop local science learning opportunities. A companion guide to the report is slated for release this fall and will offer in-depth guidance for those who design these environments. — Sara Frueh
Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments, Board on Science Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2009, 352 pp.; ISBN 0-309-11955-3; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $49.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The study committee was co-chaired by Philip Bell, associate professor of learning sciences and educational psychology, College of Education, University of Washington, Seattle; and Bruce Lewenstein, professor of science communication, departments of communications and science and technology studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.