When adults are asked to recall their most memorable moments of science learning, they more often respond with an anecdote recounting a childhood visit to a museum, science center, or zoo than with a story that involves learning science in a classroom (Falk and Dierking 1997). Researchers have found that deep levels of detail often characterize these science-learning recollections, even if the experience itself occurred decades earlier. Similar studies show that the same holds true for scientists, many of whom in fact credit an experience at an institution of informal science education as a critical influencing factor in sparking their initial interest in science and in their later decision to pursue a career in science (COSMOS Corporation 1998).
These studies illustrate the profound impact that experiences at science centers, museums, and similar institutions make in public education, and they underscore the rich opportunities for learning that these unique environments provide. It is fitting then that The Science Teacher (TST) has devoted an issue to the practical and theoretical applications of science learning in these powerful environments. Understanding the spark that museums and science centers ignite for a continuum of learners helps us as teachers to think more creatively about engaging students in the classroom and challenges us to consider the power that authentic discovery plays in science learning.
In informal learning environments, students generally show increased attention, heightened enthusiasm, and a willingness to observe, question, and discuss the objects or phenomena exhibited around them more so than they do back in the classroom. Students who are generally reticent in the formal environment of the classroom or laboratory are more likely to be drawn out and eagerly participate when immersed in the activity and energy found in the galleries of a science center. For English language learners, science center exhibits can provide a mechanism that allows them to fully participate in a science learning activity without encountering literacy or language barriers they may face in the classroom environment.
Our challenge as educators is to capitalize on these experiences both in terms of application to enhance our own classroom practice and in terms of structuring field trips so that our students get the most out of their visit. The interplay between formal and informal must always be viewed as a two-way street in this regard.
The nexus where science center phenomena meet science classroom theory is an incredibly powerful place from which to teach. Science centers have long capitalized on the strategy of using discrepant events as the hook to attract the curiosity of visitors. Discrepant events can be characterized as activities, exhibits, or demonstrations that render unexpected results and thus arouse interest, inviting the observer to engage in science inquiry. The most critical piece of the discrepant event strategy is ensuring that the phenomenon never stands alone. Discrepant events are meant to serve a very specific purpose: to capture the attention of a student or visitor and more importantly to provide the teacher or educator with an opportunity to transition to a meaningful engagement with the learner.
Think of the science center visitor who touches a static generator. A build-up of static charge ensues, which passes over the visitor’s body into each strand of their hair. Because each of the charged hair strands has the same kind of charge, they push away from, or repel, one another and the unexpected outcome can best be described as a very bad hair day. While this hair-raising experience has the capacity to elicit “wow” responses from participants (and observers), it also holds the opportunity to open the door to an “aha!” moment—a moment where theory is crystallized in an experience.
As educators, we should recognize our responsibility to push these discrepant event experiences, these moments of heightened curiosity, to the next level. We have spent decades demonstrating science to students in our classrooms and to visitors in our places of informal learning. It is time to think more broadly about our role and to begin to find ways to move from simply demonstrating science to doing more science. Critical to meaningful science education is continued attention to bringing authenticity into the learning experience. This is where classroom teachers and informal science educators can meet and make a difference, and this is where the activities in this special issue of TST will take us.
Linda Abraham-Silver (email@example.com) is president and executive director of the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
COSMOS Corporation. 1998. A report on the evaluation of the national science foundation’s informal science education program. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.
Falk, J., and L. Dierking. 1997. School field trips: Assessing their long-term impact. Curator 40: 211–218.