Informal Science Education in Museums – Learning by Accident

I thought I would kick off my contribution to this blog with a brief introduction to my area of interest in learning science and natural history in museums settings.  I’ll share a bit about myself and ask and answer a few questions.

My path into informal science education was far from direct, informal in itself.  I had imagined myself in academia, researching and teaching geology at the university level. But approaching the close of my undergraduate degree, I had trouble deciding between Peace Corps and grad school, but happened upon a new program that allowed me to conduct my research while serving in the Peace Corps. My area of interest was volcanic hazards, and I found myself working at a volcano observatory in Guatemala. My other main responsibility was integrating an environmental education curriculum in a few local schools. I was hooked, and since then I’ve continued in education with a number of non-profits, as a substitute teacher, at the Boston Museum of Science, and now at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

So, what is informal education? Why informal science education (ISE)? And why natural history and science museums? What roles do they play in public understanding of science?

What is Informal Education?

Cristina touched on this in her recent post, but basically any learning outside of a classroom environment might qualify as informal learning. There’s less pressure to learn in these informal environments, so they can actually be fun. Human beings are naturally curious creatures; we want answers. We want to know why. Think of the child who asks her father “Why is the sky blue?” — and really, we want to know answers to our own questions, not necessarily the questions a teacher asks in school.

Why informal science education?

New discoveries in science and technology are constantly happening, as well as policies surrounding science and technology. Some of them completely revolutionize what was “common knowledge” a decade ago. Pluto was still a planet. Water on Mars. Anyone can have their DNA coded for the cost of a decent high-def, flat screen TV. And when did those come about, by the way?

The 95 Percent Solution, a 2010 article by J.F. Falk & L.D. Dierking is among my favorite articles about science and education. According to Falk and Dierking, contrary to what was a common assumption until recently, most of a person’s science education is done outside a formal environment; less than 5 percent of a person’s life is spent inside a classroom (and that’s including science, history, gym, art and more). The authors conclude that the best way to increase to the public‘s understanding of science is in the remaining 95 percent of their lives. This can be on TV (Bill Nye, Mythbusters, NOVA, etc.), magazines (National Geographic, Popular Science), nature centers, or science and natural history museums. It’s not that people would be learning for all of that 95 percent, but within that time are great opportunities to teach and learn. Even while walking through a park on the way to work, contends a report by the National Research Council (Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places and Pursuits), will “contribute to people’s knowledge and interest in science and the environment.”

Figure: From Falk & Dierking, 2010


Why Science and Natural History Museums?

More and more, these institutions are being seen as valuable educational supplements for schools, as well as for those who have already completed their formal education. Other media (TV, radio, books) don’t provide the opportunity to interact or participate with actual objects or other people; they are very passive learning experiences. Museums provide the opportunity to handle real objects, solve problems, and interact with others – and potentially all at the same time, too. Remember how we ask our own questions? Natural history and science museums are perfect places to ask our own questions, and try to discover the answer.

So, what really is the role of these museums? Obviously, they have more than any one single role, especially when you consider the range of audiences that attend them. So let’s start working up the ladder, beginning with the youngest visitors.

Children and families:

Children are a funny story. They want to come to museums because it’s fun and new. Almost everything a child experiences is new to them, and when they are able to see, touch, hold, or create, they are able to satisfy their natural curiosity.  They begin to ask questions, such as the infamous “why?” In some instances, a parent may need to give their child a little push, but most children seem to be entertained and enjoy their experience. Little do children know, however, that their parents are secretly trying to get them to learn something. And parents typically seem to enjoy themselves as well, and learn a few things along the way.

Students and teachers:

A school field trip to the museum, science or otherwise, is all but standard practice in most school systems. For students it’s a break from the ordinary – a chance to break free from their teachers (if deemed responsible enough) and explore on their own. Though some museums will provide field trip guides that help facilitate and focus a school’s experience. Long days in the classroom can cause some students to lose interest, but when they come to a museum and see real animals, beautiful rocks and minerals, and fossilized skeletons, or are able to create robots or use giant hands-on models, their level of interest returns.

Ror teachers, it’s also a break from the ordinary.  No matter how long those bus rides to and from the museum might be, they know their students have experienced something that they otherwise would not have experienced in their classroom. Which is in fact how we plan a museum experience: as something that only a museum could allow you to experience.

Young Adults:

A number of centers across the world are keeping their doors open later into the night to host special evening events for teens and young adults to mingle around science. Even though the main reason young adults come to these events is to hang out with friends, or make new ones, in a fun environment, learning is bound to happen; it is an unintended consequence, though important nonetheless to a greater public understanding of science.

Concerned Citizens and Enthusiasts:

Science and natural history museums around the country maintain and partner with a number of citizen science and enthusiast programs. Project Bud Burst, FireFly Watch, Frog Watch, are just a few, and you would be hard pressed to find a science or natural history museum that doesn’t have a relationship to a project.  And in addition to citizen science, a number of museums will host forums about emerging issues in science in technology.  Provocative issues about the food system, nanotechnology, hydrofracking and climate change are just a few issues that museums will hosts discussions around.

Entertaining, yes. But also educational.  Author teaches about lightning and electromagnetism at the Museum of Science in Boston. Photo is a gift from museum visitor.

There is a lot of learning that goes on in the world, and a lot of it is not even intentional — it just happens. Informal learning experiences, such as those in science and natural history museums, are ideal places for people to learn without the pressure of a classroom setting, where visitors ask their own questions and can explore on their own. They cannot replace the structure that schools provide, but they can provide a break from the ordinary and give that “wow” moment. These environments have a lot to offer, and can be a lot of fun.

But be careful, or you might learn something…

 Adam Blankenbicker is an Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. Before entering informal science education, he earned his B.S. in Geology and Geological Oceanography with a Minor in Mathematics at the University of Rhode Island in 2004. In 2009 he completed his M.S. in Geology at Michigan Technological University in a program that allowed him to do research while serving in the United States Peace Corps in Guatemala, near the Santa Maria-Santiaguito volcano complex. After returning to the United States he continued his work in formal and informal education with the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Museum of Science in Boston, MA. He is interested in active, participatory learning for all types of learners and what informal science education centers are doing to educate and engage the public in science.

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