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Boost Science Learning at Museums, Zoos, Other Informal Settings

Each year, tens of millions of Americans, young and old, choose to learn about science in informal ways — by visiting museums and aquariums, attending after-school programs, pursuing personal hobbies, and watching TV documentaries. There is abundant evidence that these programs and settings, and even everyday experiences such as a walk in the park, contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science, says a new report from the National Research Council.

“Learning is broader than schooling, and informal science environments and experiences play a crucial role,” said Philip Bell, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, and associate professor of learning sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. “These experiences can kick-start and sustain long-term interests that involve sophisticated learning. Think of the child who sees dinosaur skeletons for the first time on a family trip to a natural history museum, and then goes on to buy dinosaur models and books, do Web searches about dinosaurs, write school reports on the subject, and on and on.”

The report outlines six “strands” of science learning that can happen in informal settings, and these strands help refine evaluations of how well people are learning in these environments. For example, learners can experience excitement and motivation to learn about phenomena in the natural and physical world. They can come to understand and use concepts and facts related to science. They can learn how scientists actually conduct their work using specialized tools and equipment. And they can develop an identity as someone who knows about, uses, and sometimes contributes to science.

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