What can we learn about learning from research in museums, media, and other informal environments? (#AAPTwm12)

by Stephanie Chasteen on March 7, 2012

A kid goes to a science museum, and plays around with a whirling vapor tornado.  The same kid sits in his science classes at school, and reads about weather and climate.  Do these two experiences have anything to do with each other?  Of course they do; but typically, we do “classroom science” in one way, and “informal science” (e.g., museums, after-school programs, etc.)  in a different way, and don’t really look too much from one to the other for ideas and inspiration.  The two environments are just different, right?  So they have different practices.

True, but I feel that there is something that we can learn, one from the other.   I wanted to know what it might be, so I organized an invited session at the Winter meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in January:  What can we learn about learning from research in museums, media, and other informal environments?   The point was to focus on the research in informal environments, and how that might inform us in the more traditional realm of physics education research, which usually focuses on classroom learning.  The session was the last day of the conference, so a lot of people couldn’t make it, so I wanted to write a detailed blog post about the session — to spark some thinking in the PER field, as well as among classroom teachers.

These invited speakers were people who typically don’t attend AAPT — people in the school of education, with experience in museums or after-school programs, or working in public education in the media.  So, this is a chance to broaden our perspective of the purposes and approaches of education.

Rethinking the roles of informal science environments and classroom teaching

First up was Jim Kisiel of California State Univerisity Long Beach, Department of Science Education.  He has a Masters in Chemistry after which he taught HS chemistry for 5 years, and PhD in Science Education.  For his dissertation he studied teacher motivations and strategies for doing field trips at museums, and he has worked in numerous capacities at the Natural History Museum of LA, so brings a rich experience in both classroom science and informal education.

Here is his abstract:

Where do we really learn science? As concerns build regarding the chal- lenges of effective science teaching in the formal, K-12 learning environ- ment, we find increased attention drawn to a larger view of science learn- ing, learning that spans setting and time. A growing body of research is helping us to understand how people come to understand science outside of school settings, suggesting a more complex and more fluid sense of sci- ence learning. For this session, we?ll explore a broader conception of what it means to learn science in informal science environments (museums, parks, science centers, aquariums) as well as the challenges of leveraging such environments and institutional resources to support learning across both informal and formal learning contexts. Research related to teacher use of informal learning settings will set the stage for a variety of strategies for improving teachers? use of informal science learning institutions and other community sites.

Where does a 5-year old learn physics? asked Jim.  On a swingset — you have to pump your legs more to go higher, and you go faster at the bottom.  We get a huge amount of formal education in grades K-12, but still, most of our time is spent out of school, engaging in science learning in a variety of environments.  Informal science education covers much of this fertile ground.  Informal science education is any non-school activity with an inherent educational value.  They might be everyday experiences, a program like an after-school program, or even a class-like experience that occurs outside of class.  These informal science activities have different goals than a classroom, and different types of learners.  They tend to be learner-centered, self-paced, voluntary and exploratory.

These out-of-school settings can develop important things, like interest, motivation and identity.  They are important parts of a science education.  However, when teachers think of museums, he says, most think of it as a place that students can go (like on a field trip) to learn more.  But museums also have a rich set of classroom resources available for use outside the museum, and educators often don’t take advantage of all the different resources to make field trips useful.  So, Jim urged, teachers should consider museums as a rich set of resources, rather than a separate place that is disconnected from the classroom.

So, what might we learn from research in museums?  One thing is that museums have figured out how to do motivation in a way that college educators often struggle with.  I used to work at the Exploratorium, and am always trying to think of ways to infuse the excitement and inspiration that came from looking at real phenomena and playing with it, into the classroom environment.  I also think that we can just take notice that the goals of inspiration and motivation are important goals, which are often missed in the college classroom.

Below are his slides for viewing:


NoVa and Science Cafes: a Flexible Model for Public Engagement of Science

Next, we were to have Rachel Connolly, the education director of WGBH Nova, who is also a former physics teacher.  Rachel was unable to make it, but Kendra Redmond of AIP graciously filled in. Kendra Redmond worked in the outreach department of the APS before she took a position in the society for physics students of the AIP.  She runs the Adopt a Physicist program  (which you should all participate in) and has been deeply involved in the Science Cafes that Rachel Connolly planned to talk about, so we are grateful to her for filling in for Rachel.

Here is her abstract:

Science Cafe?s are conversations between scientists and the public that occur in casual settings. This flexible model for public engagement is growing in popularity and increasingly being adapted to reach a range of audiences—from teachers to teens. Since 2005, NOVA has been promoting and offering resources to Science Cafe?s nationally as part of the outreach strategy for NOVA scienceNOW. With the launch of our new online com- munity at www.sciencecafes.org, we now have over 200 registered cafe affiliates nationally, and four international affiliates. Come and learn about cafes and how to start or grow one in your community.

A Science Cafe brings science to where the people are.  At a local cafe or bar — somewhere accessible, comfortable, with food and drink — people gather to hear an engaging scientist talk about their work and to ask them questions.  This is based on the model of a salon from the olden days, where people would gather to discuss philosophy and the problems of the day.  Why a Science Cafe?  While educators have figured out how to reach kids pretty well, the coveted 30-40 year old demographic has remained elusive.  This has been one way to reach those audiences.  Thus, the goal is to provide a good science experience to non-scientists, and to go where the people are (rather than trying to draw them to your museum or event).

You can get a listing of all Science Cafes around the country (and find one near you) at ScienceCafes.org.  They also have materials there for organizers.  They’re on Facebook, too.

NOVA has helped to sponsor and run some of these cafes, and they have a somewhat standard operating procedure:

  1. Start with a hook or icebreaker (may be a NOVA video clip)
  2. Scientist talks for 20 minutes (no more!)
  3. Open Q&A with a moderator
  4. Wrap up

They’ve done research and evaluation to determine the features of a “good” science cafe, and found that while the funders and organizers liked high attendance, the attendees often have a better experience if the event is more intimate.  The larger the crowd, the more challenging the event.  Since the positive experience is the most important thing, this suggests that more intimate events are better.  They also found that over 1/3 of attendees share something they hear about with a family or friend, and that for most attendees, this was the first time that they had learned about the topic.

Scientists, however, find it hard to participate in these events as a speaker, and don’t want to do it very often.  It’s a unique challenge, to provide such a short talk and field questions from the general public — it doesn’t usually work well if a scientist gives a talk they would usually give to any audience.  Not all scientists are comfortable with this, and need experience and guidance in order for it to be enjoyable for them.

Another thing that has been found to be valuable is to have a moderator — someone who can step and move things on, or ask the speaker to break things down more simply.  The best cafes are ones where the audience is talking to each other, not just the scientist, and this can be facilitated by the moderator.

So, I asked Kendra, as a college instructor, how might I use this information in my classes?  She said that she’s been astounded by the creative topics that people come up with as suggestions for cafes.  We can work to frame learning in our classes around concepts that people are naturally interested in already.  I love that suggestion, which dovetails nicely on a post that I’ll be pulling together on what I learned from Richard Muller’s talk at the same conference, on the Physics for Future Presidents classes.

Here are her slides:


Authoring New identities through Engagement in an after School Science Club, gEt City

Lastly, Hosun Kang of the University of Washington (college of education). Hosun got a BA in science education, with a focus on biology, from Souel Nat’l University, and has taught both middle school and high school science.  She has a PhD in curriculum, instruction, and policy in science education from Michigan State, where she worked in Dr. Angela Calabrese Barton’s group, which focuses on issues of social justice and equity in education.  The work she presented was from her time in Dr. Barton’s group.  She is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington in the college of education, and is interested in issues of identity and underserved students’ access to science.

Here is her abstract:

There is growing evidence that out-of-school informal science programs, such as after-school science clubs, can promote science learning (NRC, 2009). We have been studying young women’s learning and participa- tion in science as they traverse across various “science spaces,” including after-school science clubs and school science classrooms, and the impact this has on their identity development (or sense of future selves in science). Findings indicate that informal learning opportunities, when they are both continuous and complementary to school science, play critical roles in shaping how and why girls identify with science, and the ways in which such identity work can transfer from out-of-school settings to in-school settings, in ways that positively impact their participation and learning there. In my talk I focus on these findings, and describe the mechanisms of transfer that support girls in leveraging out of school learning for success in school science.

What does it mean to ask students to learn science meaningfully, asked Hosun.  Do we want them to perform well on tests, to be proficient in concepts?  Yes, those are all good things, but we often forget about the importance of identity.  Do students feel that they are a person who can do science?  Who likes scientist?  Who wants to be a scientist?  In particular, she is concerned about the underrepresentation of girls and minorities in science — girls across ethnicities opt out of science trajectories.  This is a problem, and perhaps one that is best tackled by looking at issues of identity.

In this work, they’ve studied women’s learning as they traverse different science spaces.  In a particular after-school program that they’ve been managing, called Green Energy Technology (GET) in the City, they give students technical and job skills, data management experience, and other opportunities to engage in sustainable energy practices.  You can find out more about GET City at their blog.  Following the case study of one girl, who was talked into joining GET City by her friends, they found that she incorporated her current interests (in dancing) into her engagement in the club.  For example, when making a video about green energy for other students, she choreographed the dance aspects of the video.  In this way, her identity as a dancer slowly melded into her identity as part of GET City.  She experienced a transformation due to her experiences in the club, and she went from being a shy, middle-range student, to a smart, engaged student that was revered by her teacher.  Thus, her identity shifted.

The important message was that identity is both push and pull.  We have a certain set of ideas about ourselves, something that is already ours.  Girls can get a glimpse of a different potential self based on their experiences, such as these after-school programs.  That vision can turn into an urge to be a particular sort of person, an expert in something (such as science) that we previously didn’t have a vision of.  So, in these after-school science spaces, there is an opportunity to help girls (or students in general) merge together two types of activities — such as dance and science.

What can we learn from this as instructors?  Teachers are critical in shaping students’ lives, said Hosun.  Who is allowed to be a good student in our classroom, and who is not?  How can we create a safe space where students can draw on their other resources and interests, to shape an identity as a science-interested person?

Here are her slides:


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