Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Learning Science beyond the Classroom

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Learning Science beyond the Classroom

Article excerpt

Have you ever learned science outside of school, free of fact-based standards and tests? Were you at a museum, national park, or maybe in front of a TV? Science educators refer to this kind of learning as free-choice learning or informal learning. The terms are often used when talking about institutions such as museums, zoos, and science centers. With summer now upon us--the time of year when we are most likely to visit an informal learning institution--it seems particularly appropriate to introduce this research field.

Learning in places such as museums is typically self-paced, exploratory, and voluntary; in short, visitors only learn what they want to learn. People who investigate informal settings recognize that visitors come to museums for many different reasons and that learning may only be a small part of the picture.

To give readers a sense of this field, in this month's column we visit a science museum with Jim Kisiel, a professor of science education at California State University-Long Beach who specializes in museums and free-choice learning. The first thing he notices when entering a science museum is its navigation. Are there museum maps? Do big, easy-to-see signs show visitors how to get to exhibits? Are easy-to-recognize people available to help visitors? A museum's entrance is like a book's table of contents; when well done, each helps a visitor understand, navigate, and ultimately learn better.

We move next to an exhibit. Jim tells me visitors often spend less than 40 seconds at a particular display, and the time a visitor spends within an entire exhibition may average somewhere between 10-15 minutes. He adds that studies have also shown visitors have particular behaviors in these settings: they tend to turn right, follow a main path, and stick to one side when faced with a hall that has exhibits on both sides. Skilled planners keep information such as this in mind when laying out an exhibition. In a well-planned exhibition, designers consider how easy it is to move through, avoid lots of zigzags, and know that visitors may not read everything.

Exhibit designers also think through social aspects of learning. Good design allows for discussion, including conversations among family members. This requires adequate space around a display where people can gather, see details, and participate simultaneously from different angles.

To illustrate his points, Jim uses the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. …

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