Creating the Lifelong Learning Destination: Adult learners in ISE settings

Preeti Gupta, director of youth learning and research at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York City, moderated the very informative session “Creating the Lifelong Learning Destination: Adult learners in ISE settings” on Saturday afternoon. She started the session by posing the deceptively simple question, “Why do adult learning?” A 2009 study found that only 28% of adults understand basic science reporting such as the science section of the New York Times. The public trusts museums as a source of information, and museums are therefore in an excellent position to provide lifelong learning programs. Gupta also stressed that while most informal science engagement experiences build interest and a basic understanding of a concept, they may not lead to knowledge retention. We need adults to learn how to learn.

She also shared current trends in adult learning. Forty-four percent of adults engage in continuing education, and the most common reasons were professional development or job advancement. According to a 2010 survey, 7.3% of adults’ leisure time is spent in education. There has also been a sharp increase in the availability of online learning options.

Gupta was joined by Ruth Cohen, senior director, education strategic initiatives at the AMNH; Larry Bell, senior vice president for strategic initiatives at the Museum of Science, Boston; and Rick Bonney, director of the Cornell Lab Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, each of whom shared a specific example of an adult learning program or strategy in their institution before moving onto questions and a discussion.

First, Cohen shared the AMNH’s program, Our Earth’s Future: A new course for adults. She told attendees that the need and desire for an adult course was there and the AMNH has been working to refine their offerings based on participant feedback. For instance, one of the early adult courses had homework and the participants were very unhappy with that aspect of the course! For Our Earth’s Future, the museum evaluated what the public wanted to know and built a program around climate change. They had a very specific goal for the course: participants will become fluent in the science of climate change, to speak comfortably and inform others. The course was very successful and exceeded its participation goal. Participants reported gains in self-confidence and content knowledge, and there was a clear change in participants’ understanding of evidence of climate change.

Next up was Bell, who discussed the Museum of Science’s strategy for adult education programs. Their strategy has four elements:

  1. Basic, shared background knowledge on the topic: This can be achieved through short presentations, videos, readings, or a demonstration.
  2. Explicit recognition that visitors have valuable knowledge to share: This is achieved through posing societal questions, for which everyone can share their own life experience.
  3. Discussion of socio-scientific questions that science cannot answer on its own: Bell used the example of discussing the implications of lab-grown meat and whether or not it should be pursued.
  4. Consideration of diverse perspectives: This is ideally achieved by having a diverse group of participants, but participants can also take on a different role after being provided a “character” to play.

The Museum of Science will be creating kits with hands-on activities about synthetic biology, built around these four elements, to be distributed to sites around the United States next year.

The final presentation came from Bonney, who described the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s work in citizen science. As Bonney put it, to save the world, we need a lot of data, and citizen science puts the public to work to gather that data. How do we get adults involved? One way is to say, “We need this information to save the world.” Many people will participate out of a sense of duty or altruism. If people know they are making a positive contribution to society, they will want to take part. To engage diverse audiences, Bonney suggested going to a community and asking what problems exist or what is needed and designing a citizen science project around that need. Those who didn’t engage before will become citizen scientists because it is directly helping their community.

Attendees left this session with the knowledge of how adult learning has evolved, as well as examples of very successful lifelong learning programs.