Learning Science in Informal Settings
Chat: Learning Science in Informal Settings
Tuesday, June 9, 1 p.m. Eastern time
A major recent study showed that informal science learning can play an important role in improving student learning in that subject. Such out-of-class learning can include trips to zoos or museums and the use of online games and TV shows. Many schools and outside organizations are seeking to capitalize on the fact that those environments spark students’ interest in science learning. Read an online conversation that explored the connection between informal learning and science achievement.
Related Story: Informal Experiences Can Go a Long Way in Teaching Science
Andrew Shouse, associate director of the Institute for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Washington
Heidi Schweingruber, serves on the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council
Sean Cavanagh, assistant editor at Education Week, moderated this chat.
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|Live Chat: Learning Science in Informal Settings
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In January, the National Research Council released a study called “Learning Science in Informal Environments.” It found that informal science activities, such as trips to museums and zoos, the viewing of TV shows, and even talks between parents and children, can increase students’ understanding of science – and their appreciation for it. We’re here today to talk about that study, and the benefits and challenges of informal science education, generally.
I’m joined today by two experts on this topic, both of whom worked on the NRC study. I’ll ask them to introduce themselves, and then we’ll start taking questions. Heidi, why don’t you begin by telling us a bit about your work.
|Heidi Schweingruber: Thanks Sean. I am the Deputy Director for the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council. We look at research and policy in science education across the life-span. I’ve been working on these issues for the past 5 years and on education research in math and science for the past 15 years.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy, can you tell us a bit about your background?
Sure. Greetings. This is Andy Shouse at the University of Washington. I have been involved in informal science education in research and practice. Before arriving at UW I served as Senior Program Officer with the NRC and was director of the study that resulted in this report.
|Sean Cavanagh: Thank you both. Here’s a question from Julie Holmes, and I’ll invite both of you to give your thoughts.
|[Comment From Dr. Julie A. Holmes]
I have been comducting research in informal learning for several years now. The last few years I have been surveying teachers to find to what extent they are correlating activities with their students to their visits to our children’s science museum on the campus of Louisiana Tech University. While the research is there that points to the importance of doing activities with your students before, during, and after the visit, the teachers are indicating very little correlation to what happens in the classroom and connecting it with the science museum visit. Most alarming is that the rates seem to be declining, too. The study in your article from NRC indicates how important it is for the “front-line” educators to support and enhance the experience for the learners. How do we get this reserach into practice by teachers?
|Andy Shouse: This is an observation I also made while working in the science center world and one that, as you indicate, is observed in the literature. The short answer is professional development. This means helping teachers see the value of non-school experiences which can often be framed (unfortunately) as a “day off” from instructional duties. Teachers need support in terms of materials and training to facilitate educational practice across settings.
|Heidi Schweingruber: Julie -- great question. I think what you are seeing reflects a general problem with science education in the schools. There is too little emphasis on providing students with deep experiences with the natural world and the opportunity to do scientific investigations. Part of the problem is lack of time. Part of the problem is the way that teachers and schools approach science. Solutions can come from both the school side and the informal institutions side. Better professional development for teachers and more time for science. Informal institutions can help teachers understand how to make better use of their institutions as well.
Thanks. I remember the NRC study discussed how difficult it can be to judge the effectiveness of informal science ed. This question seems to get that that. Heidi, could you address this?
|[Comment From Lisa]
Do you have any suggestions for evaluating the learning that takes place in these informal settings?
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy, I know you used to work in K-12, so I’ll direct this question from Michelle to you.
|[Comment From Michelle]
Can you offer suggestions to encourage school administrators to appreciate the need for informal education opportunities like zoo field trips?
Sean Cavanagh: While our guests tackle those, I’ll provide some background for our readers, on the study’s findings about TV shows, one type of informal education.
The study found that there was limited research, overall on the ability of popular TV shows to improve students’ science learning. The strongest evidence related to educational TV’s benefits, through shows such as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” and “3-2-1 Contact,” it found.
|Heidi Schweingruber: Lisa -- The report includes extensive discussion of the challenges of assessing learning in informal settings. One overarching point is that the kinds of tests commonly used to measure achievement in school are not usually appropriate. For informal settings, you need to think about learning broadly and include things like motivation and interest as important outcomes. You also need to be sure that the way you assess doesn’t impinge on the basic principles of many informal settings -- that is people should be free to choose what they engage and how.
|Sean Cavanagh: Thank you Heidi. Here’s a question from Kyle.
|[Comment From Kyle Ham]
As someone who works at a museum doing informal education, what would you recommend as ways to evaluate our programs? How did we know if our varied activities are having an impact?
What kinds of informal science experience do you believe has the most potential to improve student learning?
TV shows like “CSI”
educational TV, like “Bill Nye”
interactive/online computer games
conversations between parents, children
|Andy Shouse: Hi Michelle. Encouraging administrators to see the value of informal venues is critical, I agree. We’ve been doing a lot of this work recently at the UW with school systems in both rural and urban areas, working through the Washington LASER alliance with middle school administrators. This work is just getting started, but one important way into this is to help them see how differently children often engage in school and non-school settings. We draw on a corpus of digital video data from an enthnographic study of children learning science in school and nonschool settings. We use this data to show the administrators that often children who don’t show any apparent interest in science class actually have extensive interests in science. The contrasts are often striking and children who don’t express interest in the classroom -- and who may be seen as “off task” -- may have very extensive repertoires of science activities in their non-school lives. Fascinating really. The challenge is that administrators need to understand how informals can help them bring more students into academic endeavors.
|Sean Cavanagh: Thanks Andy. Here’s a question for you from Elizabeth.
|[Comment From Elizabeth Stanley]
What do you mean by “informal settings”? I’m thinking of a series called “Rough Science” that was on PBS a few years ago, and the scientists were doing science experiments on a Caribbean island. I thought it was a great view of how resourceful scientists can be, even outside their labs or classrooms.
|Heidi Schweingruber: Kyle -- As a short answer, you should first make sure you are clear on the outcomes that are the targets of each of your programs. Defining clear learning goals/outcomes is the first step toward evaluation. You can do things as simple as observing people on the museum floor and in your programs. You can interview people as they exit. The report offers many suggestions. You might also engage a professional evaluator if you want to do a larger scale evaluation. The National Science Foundation also has put together a useful handbook on evaluation of informal environments.
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi, here’s a question from Deborah on working with students with disabilities. Not sure if your study addressed this, specifically.
|[Comment From Deborah Rios]
Can you comment on teaching informal science to children with disabilities? I am interested in reaching out and learning more on the subject because I am part of a project team working to make informal science accessible to adults with disabilities.
|Sean Cavanagh: I’ve just published a poll for our readers. What types of informal ed do you see as holding the most potential to help students?
|Heidi Schweingruber: Deborah, our report only briefly touched on reaching this audience. We do have a follow-up report for practitioners coming out this Fall which will have more details. But, one general principle in the report is that when designing for specific populations or communities it is critical to have members of that community involved in the design process from the beginning. In this way, the program/exhibit is designed collaboratively.
Hi there Elizabeth. The definitional work was very tricky in the context of the committee. Your question is more on the activities of scientists doing their work whereas our emphasis was on where non-science experts go to do their work. We organized the discussion into three cross-cutting “venues” which are: everyday and family settings, designed settings, and programs. Everyday and family settings are simply the learning we do in daily life which may or may not be framed as “science.” For example, as we talk about food, nutrition with our families at the dinner table or answer the questions children ask spontaneously as your walk around the outdoors. Designed settings are those places like museums and science centers which are designed to promote science interest and learning and which are navigate freely by learners. Programs are the most “school like” -- they persist over time and with a common group of people working towards a set learning objective (e.g., after school science or evening courses for adults on local ecology, etc.). There’s quite a bit of literature on each of these areas. And woven into all of these is media -- tv, radio, digital environs, etc.
Sean Cavanagh: One of the more intriguing parts of the NRC study dealt with popular TV shows like CSI. There’s a lot of interest in schools in curriculum that deals with forensics, presumably because of the popularity of these shows.
The study mentions that, on the one hand, there have been documented cases of court cases being dismissed because jurors lack DNA and other physical evidence – despite other evidence being available. Those cases demonstrate how TV shows can warp viewers’ understanding of science. Yet CSI “also demonstrates the power of entertainment media to teach viewers what it means to do science, as these programs seem to increase expectations of what occurs in trials,” the NRC report says. “While CSI may occasionally lead to misconceptions about real science, it has also lead to positive outcomes in terms of viewers’ awareness of and interest in forensics.” (page 258)
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy, here’s a question for you about digital texts and what connection they have to informal ed.
|[Comment From Evelyn]
How do you see new digital textbooks in science curriculum playing a role in informal science learning at the high school learning. I’m sure websites are being used now to supplement science lessons, so do you think digital textbooks will catch on quickly or will teachers keep hardcover books and use them as additional resources?
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi -- here’s one related to the connection to adult learning.
|[Comment From Alice Enevoldsen]
Does anyone have studies about the effects of informal (specifically hands-on and interactive) education on adults? We have some adult teachers here at my museum who apply the concepts of hands-on interactivity VERY well when working with children, but when approached by an adult they default into lecture-mode. Relatedly, do you know anything about the effect of positive feedback and praise for adults in this same setting? Some staff claim that this feels like “talking down” to adults, but they don’t think it feels like “talking down” to kids.
|[Comment From Wayne Wheatley]
I think this poll would have very different results if our students were given a vote. I believe they would all vote for the sources that they already seek in their own spare time, and unfortunately that rarely includes trips to museums anymore.
|Sean Cavanagh: I might agree Wayne. The poll categories were of my own choosing, and somewhat arbitrary, I’ll admit. I should have also included “after school learning.”
|Andy Shouse: Hi Evelyn. This is a great, timely topic. Unfortunately I don’t think we have a grounded sense from research on the prospects of digital textbooks. Much of this will come down to local politics and, I would imagine, the comfort level of teachers. I would surmise that in short order it will be much easier to rely on these resources for instructional purposes in large measure because younger teachers are quite comfortable with digital media. And increasingly the resources are available.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy, here’s one from Telandria on motivation/ interest.
|[Comment From Telandria]
You mentioned that evaluation of informal science programs should include motivation and interest. What other outcomes should be part of an evaluation of science learning in informal learning?
Hi Alice -- This very issue is touched on in the report. It turns out that many programs for adults are in the lecture format. But, adults themselves report that they like more interaction! They become just as bored with the lecture format as kids do. Regarding praise -- other research, not necessarily in this report, suggests that praise is tricky. Even children know when it is not genuine, so it is important to be sure to give specific feedback and avoid general, rather empty platitudes for adults AND for children.
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi, here’s a question from Cathie. Any thoughts on how informal science expereinces can be connected to testing?
|[Comment From Cathie Leslie]
Before NCLB there was time to incorporate field trips and followup classroom activities. My own kids, now in their 20s were able to visit fossil sites, apple farms, the local university, and other nature oriented programs with their class. Following these trips there were discussions and formal “write-ups” of what was learned. This was done from first grade on up. Now we have the occasional field trip (still to great places like the planetarium, insights museums, and other surrounding natural areas but little time to write or discuss afterward. We’ve had some pretty good presenters on chemistry, fractals, and physics, but then it is back to the classroom and “take out your reading books...” All this testing is shortchanging the ability to really teach science today.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy wrote about the digital textbook movement earlier. This is indeed a timely topic, given that in California, Gov. Schwarzenegger is moving to have all of the state’s math and science textbooks put online. He argues that it will save costs, among other benefits.
|Andy Shouse: Hi Telandria. This issue cuts to the core of the important relationship between research/evaluation and informal education. There is a broad range of outcomes we can imagine in the these settings. In the report we organized a 6-component framework of interrelated aspects of science learning. This includes concepts, collecting and analyzing data, reflecting on scientific knowledge, practicing science, and interest and identity. Once challenge is that these aspects of learning are quite interrelated, but not all are necessarily supported in any one setting. For example, “reflecting on scientific knowledge” in a sophisticated way takes time, and requires support over time. So it may not be the best kind of outcome for, say, a typical science center setting. We need to push ourselves to work together across practice and research/evaluation to get very clear about how a particular practice or setting best supports science learning -- and hone our questions to those aspects primarily.
|Heidi Schweingruber: Cathie -- an important and very provocative question. There is some documentation that the NCLB focus on reading and math and on testable outcomes has really pushed science out of the curriculum That said, the era of accountability is a reality. One important message for teachers and administrators (and curriculum designers) is that going for sheer coverage of topics is a mistake. Learning a few important ideas in science in depth goes alot further toward really understanding the discipline. With a focus on fewer, central ideas in science there can be more time spent on each and things like field trips and extended investigations can be brought into the mix.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy, I have my own question for you. If I read the NRC report correctly, it seems like it says that there is not a great deal of hard evidence of the connection between popular TV shows and student learning. But there is stronger evidence for a benefit educational/ science TV, like Bill Nye’s show. What science skills are educational TV shows helping students develop?
|Andy Shouse: Sean, let’s hope that someone puts resources into studying the CA adoption of texts. What an opportunity to learn about digital resources rolling out on scale. . . assuming it happens!
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi -- I’ll direct this one from Susan to you.
|[Comment From Susan]
How does free play-especially outdoors, or working with parents on tasks like planting gardens, fixing a car or other “chores” factor into informal learning?
|Heidi Schweingruber: Susan -- the kinds of activities you are talking about (free play, working with parents on everyday tasks, etc) fits onto one of the major categories of informal experiences the report identifies. That is, everyday settings. It is absolutely the case that these experiences, woven into people’s everyday lives, represent important instances of science learning. We also know that the extent to which and how science gets incorporated into these daily activities varies wildly from family to family and across communities.
|Andy Shouse: Sean, good question. We found pretty good evidence that educational TV could support concept learning. This is where the majority of the literature was focused. There are also studies that show gains for viewers in areas of problem solving and science processes (e.g., how to answer an empirical question with science).
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi -- Here’s a question for you about the connection between informal ed and students’ choice of a career. It’s a topic that draws a lot of interest these days, with all the talk about students not picking “STEM” careers.
|[Comment From Tiffany Few]
I would like to know more about activites that will broaden childrens ideas about careers in science. So many have the belief that all scientist are stuck in a lab with a test tube. How can we build in career oriented activites into content.
|Andy Shouse: One more observation about educational TV. There is a nice pocket of research on the effects of co-viewing in particular parents and young children. The impact of a parent joining in and participating in the viewing is powerful.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy. This is more fundamental question, which I probably should have spotted earlier.
|[Comment From Elizabeth]
What is your definition of informal science?
Sean Cavanagh: Here’s a bit more background for our readers:
The National Research Council study identified six “strands,” or goals for student learning that can be supported through informal science education: building motivation to learn about the natural world; understanding scientific arguments, concepts, models, and facts; manipulating, testing, exploring, and questioning; understanding the nature of scientific knowledge, institutions, and processes; using scientific language and tools and working with one another; and thinking of themselves as science learners who can contribute to the field.
|Andy Shouse: Hi Elizabeth -- you asked what our definition of informal science was. We actually don’t use that language in the report, though it is a common shorthand folks throughout the relevant fields do use. Rather, we defined informal environments for science learning. An emphasis on the environments -- places, social configurations, time spans -- was more productive for engaging a discussion of learning. I described the “venues” in a response above. That may give you a sense of the definition. Thanks.
|Heidi Schweingruber: Tiffany -- in this report, and in many of the reports from our board, we emphasize the need to change stereotypes about what it means to be a scientist and do science. We need to put forward images of science that more accurately represent scientists today. That is a diverse group of people who work together to solve problems and exchange ideas. it is particularly important to show that science and scientists contribute to solving many of the worlds most pressing problems. All spaces where children (and adults) are exposed to science need to work on shifting these stereotypes -- textbooks, museums, TV, movies. Providing opportunities for students to learn more about the real lives of scientists can be one approach.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy -- Here’s one for you about after school science. Popular programs, I imagine, in some districts.
|[Comment From Sue Manglallan]
Could you speak to role that afterschool programs should play in learning science.
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi -- from Wayne -- about misinformation in science ed, and how to combat it.
|[Comment From Wayne Wheatley]
I’m constantly battling against the amount if MISinformation that students hear from TV shows and movies. Does your study also find that this is a problem or at least a reason for the lack of trust in these sources?
Hi Sue. You asked about afterschool programs. It’s hard to say broadly. Ideally these would be places where children can engage in inquiry, where they can perhaps collect data over time, where they can explore questions of their own interests. All of that is challenging in many programs where staff have limited science background, I realize. I point to these aspects, however, because they are often under-emphasized in schools. The nice thing about afterschool science is that there is not as strong a push for academic accountability, so children’s interests can get greater attention.
|Heidi Schweingruber: Wayne -- the problem of misinformation is huge. I’ve actually also heard scientists bemoan the amoung of misinformation in textbooks! Sean’s comment about the observation related to the “CSI” effect discussed in the report is relevant. From the perspective of the work of our board as a whole, I think we really see the problem of representation of science and improving scientific literacy in general as one of our overarching goals. This requires efforts on multiple fronts. in fact, the National Academies has begun a project, based in LA, which is a partnership with the entertainment industry, the goal being to help improve the representation of science and scientists and avoid so much misinformation.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy. Here’s a question for you from Lydia, who refers to “blending” formal and informal science education.
|[Comment From Lydia Martinez Rivera]
The problem of student engagement in STEM disciplines is not exclusive to our K-12 system. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students enrolled in higher education view those courses as a “requisite” for a degree that would allow them to get a good job rather than a course that could increase their knowledge about themselves, our world, and the Universe. I think that rather than separating a “forma’ vs. “informal” settings for Science Learning, our job as educators should be to “blend” these approaches. After all, the sum of the parts should be, in principle, equal to the whole. Any comments on how we could achieve this formidable goal at a national level?
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi -- Here’s a question for you related tothe depth of research in this area.
|[Comment From Candace Lutzow-Felling]
What peer-reviewed publications are there that demonstrate a link between informal science learning opportunities and improved formal science learning?
|Sean Cavanagh: A comment from a reader, Patrick:
|[Comment From Patrick Dickson]
after school programs have been dramatically reduced under budget pressures; same for summer school programs...except for those trying to raise the lower achieving students ability to pass algebra atec.
|Andy Shouse: Hi Lydia - I couldn’t agree with you more! One of the foundational observations in the report is that learning happens across settings. The implication for the community of science education is that we should try to build continuities and redundant supports for learners in schools, outside or schools, at higher ed, etc. I think that the best resource in the report for pushing on this agenda is the 6-strand model of learning goals. We often use it in our work at UW with our partners to identify common commitments of schools, informals, and higher ed.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy -- This one relates to student motivation, and how they’re drawn to science.
|[Comment From Patrick Dickson]
When I read autobiography of scientists, some early on were drawn to science by a specific passion... such as ants, in Edward Wilson’s case. Wat I think is missing in the NRC ‘strands’ is a recognition of these specific passions which need to be supported by the more general ‘strands’ but seem to me to be quite different in their motivational power. I worry that trying to create the generic ‘scientist’ in our K-12 schools we run the risk of failing to attend to these passionate individual interests.
Candace -- I believe the answer is very few (though Andy may know the literature better). That said, it is also important to consider whether the question should really be whether informal experiences lead to improved school outcomes. The report stresses that the goals and expected outcomes for learning science in informal settings are often quite different from the goals/outcomes stressed in school. That said, in a less concrete way, there is evidence that some students who may typically NOT do well in school science may show interest and competence in informal settings that is not evident from their work in classrooms or on tests.
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi -- Here’s a question from Elizabeth. I’m not sure to what extent the report’s findings were gender-specific.
|[Comment From Elizabeth Stanley]
I’m glad to see that the report found good evidence that educational TV could support concept learning, and also broaden children’s ideas about careers in science. What evidence do you see that relates to advances for young girls in science?
|[Comment From Lisa Alexander]
How can average folks in K-12 education get a copy of the study and of the NSF evaluation handbook that was mentioned?
Sean Cavanagh: Lisa,
Here’s a link to a story I wrote about the study and informal science ed. There’s a link to the study in the article:
|Heidi Schweingruber: Elizabeth -- regarding girls in science, there is some discussion of gender in our chapter on diversity and equity. Overall, there have been significant improvements in women’s participation in science. However, this really varies by the area of science. We still have issues in computer science and engineering, for example.
Hi Patrick. Good point. In part I think the strands do maintain passions -- strand one is, after all, about motivation and interest. But I think one way the strands come up short is that they could be perceived to imply that interests are some how general or common or fungible. In the ethnography work of my colleages here at the UW LIFE Center it is very clear that children’s interests in science are very specialized. For example, one girl goes deeply into animal behavior and diet of hampsters. Another little girl is very taken with potions, mixing, etc. as she sets out to create perfume.
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy -- Here’s one for Kay, on how to explain the benefits of informal ed to teachers.
|[Comment From Kay]
Andy, earlier you mentioned “helping teachers see the value of non-school experiences.” What can the informal educator (eg, museum docents, trained volunteers, etc) do to help teachers understand the value of their students’ informal education experience?
|Sean Cavanagh: Heidi -- Here’s one from Patrick on “virtual schools.”
|[Comment From Patrick Dickson]
Michigan Virtual School is running “virtual summer camps” this summer giving middle school students a chance to interact with math and science simulations. Do you think virtual ‘informal settings’ such as these can have similar benefits as face-to-face experiences?
Sean Cavanagh: Heidi,
Here’s one from Wayne on partnerships.
|[Comment From Wayne Wheatley]
In Detroit we have a few charter schools partnering up with local museums and science centers. Did your study include these partnerships at all? I am curious to know if the students there perform better or at the same rate as their public school peers.
|Heidi Schweingruber: Patrick -- we’ve been exploring the evidence related to virtual schools and learning on-line. In fact, we are just starting up a study on learning science from games and simulations and will have a large public workshop in October. From what I’ve been learning, there can be good benefits of learning in these virtual, informal settings. But, not all students are able to really engage in them fully. They also need to be carefully designed. One important piece that students do not get from simulations is the awareness that investigations in science can be “messy” and don’t always turn out exactly as you would like them to.
|Andy Shouse: Hi Kay. I can think of a few ways to help teachers see the value of informal experiences. This report is one good resource -- it pulls the research evidence together and it has been very thoroughly vetted. So I’d encourage you to share it with your colleagues in schools. Another approach is to provide clear illustrations of how a particular experience reflects science learning goals that educators value. I know this is not a popular response among my colleagues informal education who often are skeptical of standards. I am too. But I also believe that there are important aspects of the standards that we should key too that have to do with problem solving, experiential learning, engaging in inquiry. You might also enlist local teachers are very good at using informal environments to tutor their colleagues -- science-enthusiast teachers are amazing volunteers in this kind of task :)
Wayne -- I am not aware of good data on the kinds of partnerships you are describing. Thus, I do not think they were discussed in any depth in the report. You’ll have to let us know what happens!
|Sean Cavanagh: Andy -- This is more of a comment. But how can informal ed be tied to state standards, if at all?
|[Comment From Dr. Julie A. Holmes]
Museum edcators need to correlate programs and exhibits with the state standards. If they can demonstrate that their programs are direcly coordinated with (in our case in LA) Grade level Experctations, then we may be a step closer to more informal learning.
|Andy Shouse: Linking science center experiences to standards is tricky business. I think it is worth doing and should be done, but cautiously and only in a manner that supports what is already happening in these settings. The challenge is that standards limit what we teach --that’s what they are designed to do. And they lag science by decades. Meanwhile informal settings should be about engaging science and engaging learners as well. So there are complementarities and ways in which standards and informals should maintain separate identities.
|Sean Cavanagh: That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks to both Andy and Heidi for their input, and their lightning-quick typing. And we appreciate all the comments and questions from our readers. Until the next “chat” --
|Andy Shouse: Thanks for convening this discussion Sean. And thanks all for great questions. Cheers, Andy