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'Informal' Science Learning Merits More Support, Researchers Say

I've just come across a provocative article recently published in the American Scientist magazine that calls into question whether schools are really the most effective conduit for learning about science. It suggests that growing evidence points to the power of "free choice science learning"—often referred to as "informal science learning"—to advance the public's understanding of science. With this in mind, they call for a change in the ratio of money going toward informal versus formal learning.

"Most policy solutions ... involve improving classroom practices and escalating the investment in schooling, particularly during the precollege years," write researchers John Falk and Lynn Dierking from the College of Science at Oregon State University. "The assumption has been that children do most of their learning in school and that the best route to long-term public understanding of science is successful formal schooling."

But they note that Americans spend less than five percent of their lives in classrooms, and "an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school."

The article, from the November-December issue of American Scientist, suggests that an increased investment in informal science learning might be a cost-effective way to significantly improve Americans' understanding of the subject.

The article offers a variety of examples of the types of informal resources and activities available to the American public, such as digital content, educational TV and radio, science museums, zoos, aquariums, national parks, and community activities such as 4-H and scouting.

"The sheer quantity and importance of this science learning landscape lies in plain sight but mostly out of mind," the researchers say.

For more on informal science learning, check out the 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences, "Learning Science in Informal Environments."

That report certainly makes the case for the power of informal science learning, but from what I can tell, does not go as far as Falk and Dierking in assessing the impact of informal science as opposed to what's learned in school.

Nonetheless, the National Academy of Sciences report certainly was intended to serve as a national clarion call to give more time and attention to informal science learning.

It says: "Efforts to enhance scientific capacity typically target schools and focus on such strategies as improving science curriculum and teacher training and strengthening the science pipeline. What is often overlooked is the potential for science learning in nonschool settings, where people actually spend the majority of their time."

To be clear, the article by Falk and Dierking does not suggest that schools don't matter for learning about science. They authors say their goal is not to diminish the importance and value of schooling. But they do suggest there's a big imbalance between investments in schools and those in other settings.

"Given that at present school-based science education efforts receive an order of magnitude more resources than free-choice learning options, even a modest change in this ratio could make a huge difference," they write. "The data suggest it would be a wise investment."

So, what say you, Dear Reader? Is it time for a change in this ratio?

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