Museums boost science learning, new report finds

Flip It, Fold It, Figure It Out: Playing with Math, an exhibition funded by NSFToday, the (U.S.) National Research Council (NRC) released a highly anticipated report on learning in informal settings. According to the NRC, “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, for example. 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.”

Philip Bell, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and associate professor of learning sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, stated that “Learning is broader than schooling, and informal science environments and experiences play a crucial role. 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.”

In addition to finding that informal learning experiences can significantly improve outcomes for individuals from groups that are historically underrepresented in science, the report notes that there is strong evidence that educational television can help people learn about science. The report also points to evidence that participation in informal science learning (like volunteering in the collection of scientific data) can promote informed civic engagement on science-related issues such as local environmental concerns.

Learning Science in Informal Environments: People Places, and Pursuits was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The report can be read in its entirety here.