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.

Unintentional Benefits of Open Access: The broader impact of making publications free

Library
The Carleton University Library. I spent many hours here, studying, photocopying, sleeping. Photo via Emilybean

When I was in undergrad, we would photocopy articles down in the basement of MacOdrum library at my alma mater, Carleton University. You’d have to find the call number of the journal, head down into the basement, find the right row, then bookshelf, and finally discover someone had already taken the journal to photocopy it. I learned quickly to check the photocopy room first to see if someone already had the article rather than looking for it first.

But now we’ve moved into a world where everything is done electronically. Through the power of PubMed, Google Scholar and numerous others, you can obtain PDFs of many articles via your institution. And now, many of those articles are available under Open Access rules – so anyone can access them, regardless of academic affiliation.

Restrictions around accessing articles have several major consequences for those of us teaching courses in higher education. These range from the mundane, such as how it prevents us from emailing journal articles to each other, to the dramatic, in that it limits how easily we can share lecture notes and discussions with the public at large.

One of the most apparent consequences of restricted access to articles is that we can’t simply send out articles to students. While before I could get access to the class mailing list, attach the PDF and send out the article, I can (or rather, should) no longer do this. This is largely a consequence of journal subscriptions: since Universities have to pay for access to journals, they need to see which are the most popular when they make decisions. If I find a journal publishes papers that are useful teaching tools, then having all my students access it shows that their subscription should be renewed; if I was the only person to access it and then I pass that article around the journal looks unpopular even though it might be quite useful. But this is relatively minor.

For medical professionals, there are more serious benefits to papers being published under open access licences. Healthcare professionals, such as those in medicine, nursing, physical therapy and other fields can keep up to date, without having to purchase expensive articles (which can be range from $5 to $50+ each). Thus, they can keep current with their field, without having to spend a small fortune on papers. This has particular relevance for doctors who may want to learn about a new drug before making a decision about whether or not to give it to their patients. But these benefits can start even earlier. For students of these fields still in school, they can get the latest information easily, and share that information with others. This is of particular relevance for those taught using Problem Based Learning, which is where they are given a scenario and, under the guidance of a tutor, develop their knowledge about that particular condition. While they may have access through their school to some articles, they may be unable to access others.

Boalt Hall Lecture Hall
I’m assuming everyone who was supposed to be in this class is learning from home. Photo via umjanedoan

Perhaps the most drastic consequence is if we then want to make our courses and notes available to anyone. One of the great “dreams” of the internet is that anyone who wants to learn about a subject can. Sites such as SlideShare and YouTube have led to a proliferation of lectures and seminars. If you want to learn about something, odds are someone has a video or PowerPoint on the internet that you can access. I recently bought a ukulele, and through the power of YouTube and UkuleleMike, have been able to teach myself how to play a number of songs. And the same applies for science. Someone, somewhere has taught the subject you’re struggling with. With Open Access and Creative Commons, that person can have their work freely available, and still be credited for their effort (click here for a great post on the 10th Anniversary of Creative Commons by PLOS CEO Peter Jerram).

At a bigger level to this would be Massive Open Online Courses – university level courses that are available for free. It’s great for those who are tangentially interested in the material, or are at other institutions that may not have a focus on the subject you want to learn about. MOOCs are becoming very common in the higher education sphere – sites such as EdX, a non-profit led by MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley and Academic Room, from Harvard, MIT, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley, Duke and Carnegie Mellon, have lectures freely available for those who are interested. However, this is only possible when the source papers are freely available. If the course uses papers that can’t be freely accessed, then you can’t publish the lectures openly, and the audience is limited.

Open Access is still relatively new for those of us in higher education, and we’re still seeing just how far the reach of it can be. It’s self-evident however, that this is the way forward, and can revolutionize how we view and share information in the digital age. And with this comes its own set of challenges and problems.

How about you readers? How has open access impacted your teaching experience in higher education?

Science literacy and the polarized politics of climate change

One of the major goals of science education is for all citizens to have some basic level of science literacy. The rationale is that a basic understanding of science is necessary in order to participate in a modern democratic society, where we must often grapple with policy decisions that deal with socioscientific issues, and where scientific evidence can be a major deciding factor in policy.

paper published in Nature Climate Change earlier this year challenged a long-standing assumption in both science education and science communication: that increasing science literacy will increase public “acceptance” of the scientific consensus on the risks posed by climate change. The authors surveyed a representative sample of about 1,500 U.S. adults and found that people with an egalitarian-communitarian worldview (roughly liberal) were more likely to perceive climate change to be higher risk with higher levels of science literacy, while for people with a hierarchical-individualist worldview (roughly conservative), higher science literacy scores meant they were more likely to underestimate the risks associated with climate change. If the assumption that science literacy is the solution had held, both groups would have moved toward rating climate change as higher risk as they increased in science knowledge, to line up with current scientific consensus. Instead, increasing science knowledge correlated with increasingly polarized views.

The paper comes out of Dan Kahan’s cultural cognition project at Yale. Cultural cognition posits that individuals tend to form opinions that cohere with the values and ways of life of the cultural groups they identify with. In other words, people process information in ways that reinforce a sense of belonging to certain cultural groups and identifiers. The central idea is related to confirmation bias, but goes further to define the root causes of the beliefs people seek to confirm: cultural worldviews. Unlike confirmation bias, cultural cognition can predict how people will react to totally new issues, for which they had no prior opinions, based on their worldviews. (For more on distinguishing cultural cognition and confirmation bias, see Kahan’s blog.) In some ways the findings are not all that surprising. Knowing that humans are always striving to confirm their own hunches, opinions, and beliefs, it follows that the addition of more knowledge and argumentation skills just builds the arsenal for developing a stronger defense of one’s preferred view. Janet Raloff at ScienceNews paraphrases Kahan:

“In fact, some of the most science-literate critics [of climate science] will listen to experts only to generate compelling counter-arguments.”

This isn’t just about conservatives denying science. Both liberals and conservatives have been found to diverge from scientific consensus on issues that have the potential to either reinforce or threaten their identities, values, and worldviews (for example, on the issue of the right to carry concealed handguns – see Kahan et al. 2010). Furthermore, it isn’t about denying or mistrusting science as an institution; instead, people are developing different perceptions about what the science actually says. Both sides try to “claim” science for their side.

Lone polar bear on sea ice. Photo by fruchtwerg’s world.

But what does this mean for science education? The findings pose more questions than answers. It would be a mistake to think that science literacy is useless — or even dangerous — because it might act as a polarizing force. Without it, citizens would have little basis or inclination to engage with socioscientific issues at all — hardly the recipe for a functioning democracy. So it is necessary, but not sufficient. However, the findings strongly suggest that a simplistic “deficit” model, in which students/citizens are blank slates that just need to be filled up with science facts and information, clearly won’t work.

It’s worth noting how the authors were measuring science literacy. They employed a combined science literacy/numeracy scale. Eight science literacy items, which were taken from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators, probed relatively simple factual knowledge about biology and physics with true/false statements (for example, “electrons are smaller than atoms”). No items testing understanding of the scientific method were used, though previous research using the items has shown decent correlation between the facts and methods dimensions. Mathematical word problems were used to measure numeracy; these were included because more numerate people tend to be disposed to more accurate, methodical modes of thinking, especially with regard to decision making and risk assessment (system 2, according to Daniel Kahneman). However, the measure is limited by not being able to discern a high level of competence in science. It can distinguish those who know little science from those who know a bit more, but even a person who was able to correctly answer all eight items could not necessarily be said to be “science literate.” We can say the items measured some science knowledge plus tendency to think more slowly and analytically, but not “science literacy.” An unanswered question is how to accurately measure the multi-dimensional concept of science literacy — but the initial indications from this study are certainly noteworthy and concerning.

The results of this paper should prompt us to reexamine what is most important in science literacy, and therefore in science education. While most of the discussions of these results have been couched in science communication issues (how scientists and the media reach out to adult non-scientist citizens), K-12 science educators potentially have a huge opportunity to educate a new generation of citizens in a way that could reduce the risks of polarization. What strategies might accomplish this goal? My ponderings that follow below are just conjecture, but can hopefully generate some conversation from the science education perspective.

One possibility is that by emphasizing the nature and process of science more than the “consensus” textbook facts, students will understand what to look for in good science and develop structured, rational habits of mind. A crucial aspect of science is that it’s OK to be wrong. A hypothesis doesn’t have to be right in order to learn something important from the evidence collected. Scientists throw out their old theories if new ones are a better fit for the data. It’s about having an open mind and even challenging the established consensus when the evidence is strong. When people use their knowledge exclusively for the purposes of proving their opinion is right, and see data that contradicts their opinions as simply the next challenge to rebut, they aren’t thinking like scientists. Perhaps examples and experiences of surprising or negative results might serve to get students thinking like scientists, even in the face of cultural predispositions or prior beliefs.

A strong emphasis on critical response skills might also limit the polarizing effects of knowledge. Part of the reason climate change deniers are able to use their knowledge to entrench themselves further in their chosen viewpoint is that they are focussing on — and finding — less scientifically credible data sources. Through biased search, they are discovering the few dissenting scientists, or pundits who mix facts with opinion. Sharper critical response skills would make the flaws and weaknesses in their favored data sources stand out. If all students are exposed to in science class is their textbooks and lab manuals (which are always “right”), how will they learn to evaluate sources of scientific data?

Just as we can’t assume adult citizens are blank slates, neither can we assume young students are blank slates. Even when dealing with non-polarized naive ideas about science, prior knowledge and conceptions must be taken into account in helping students move to a more scientific understanding. Science educators should be aware of the cultural allegiances their students may have, and should attempt to frame discussions of polarizing concepts in ways that are not immediately and totally opposed to those allegiances. Students could be exposed to cases in which many different socio-political groups have been known to twist or misrepresent science to serve their purposes (see GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left) and learn to recognize these ulterior motives.

Young students are dealing with issues of identity, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity. There is an opportunity for scientific thinking (as a useful, impartial, non-partisan intellectual tool) to become part of students’ cultural identities. By fostering a collegial environment where controversial issues can be discussed openly and civilly, science educators could help reduce the fear and antagonism individuals can face when supporting an idea that is perceived as discordant with the prevailing worldview. Of course, science educators often face their own sources of conflict from parents, students, and even themselves when it comes to controversial topics like climate change and evolution.

The problem of polarization is a puzzling one, but the stakes are high, and science educators will play a pivotal role in preparing future policymakers.