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The 95 percent solution: School is not where most Americans learn most of their science

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The scientific research and education communities have long had a goal of advancing the public's understanding of science. Another emerging area of research investigates science-related hobbies. Research conducted by Marni Berendsen, education researcher and project director of the NASA Night Sky Network, showed that amateur astronomy club members lacking college-level astronomy training often knew more general astronomy than did undergraduate astronomy majors. Supporting evidence for the important role that out-of-school experiences have on children's learning is emerging from a variety of fronts. For example, a recent meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental evaluation findings for after-school programs showed that such programs need not be academically focused in order to have academic impact. It seems reasonable to assume that out-of-school science-learning experiences are fundamental to supporting and facilitating lifelong science learning. The dominant assumption behind much current educational policy and practice is that school is the only place where and when children learn.
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The scientific research and educa-
tion communities have long had
a goal of advancing the public’s un-
derstanding of science. The vast ma-
jority of the rhetoric and research on
this issue revolves around the failure
of school-aged children in the United
States to excel at mathematics and sci-
ence when compared with children in
other countries. Most policy solutions
for this problem involve improving
classroom practices and escalating the
investment in schooling, particularly
during the precollege years. The as-
sumption 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. The “school-first”
paradigm is so pervasive that few
scientists, educators or policy makers
question it. This despite two impor-
tant facts: Average Americans spend
less than 5 percent of their life in class-
rooms, and an ever-growing body of
evidence demonstrates that most sci-
ence is learned outside of school.
We contend that a major educa-
tional advantage enjoyed by the U.S.
relative to the rest of the world is its
vibrant free-choice science learning
landscape—a landscape filled with a
vast array of digital resources, edu-
cational television and radio, science
museums, zoos, aquariums, national
parks, community activities such as
4-H and scouting and many other sci-
entifically enriching enterprises. The
sheer quantity and importance of this
science learning landscape lies in plain
sight but mostly out of mind. We be-
lieve that nonschool resources—used
by learners across their lifetimes from
childhood onward—actually account
for the vast majority of Americans’ sci-
ence learning. If this premise is cor-
rect, then increased investment in
free-choice (also known as informal)
learning resources might be a very
cost-effective way to significantly im-
prove public understanding of science.
Taking this view, though, requires dis-
mantling a widespread misconception
that out-of-school educational experi-
ences only support superficial science
learning and the recreational interests
of a limited percentage of the curious
public, rather than the learning of real
science by all citizens.
Traditional assumptions about the
source of science knowledge are deep-
ly held. Historian of science Steven
Turner locates the beginning of today’s
Public Understanding of Science move-
ment in the 1980s. Its hallmarks were
“new, vigorous efforts to promote pub-
lic knowledge of science and to instill
confidence and support for the scien-
tific enterprise.” The major focus of this
effort was a widespread reassessment
of the content and goals of school sci-
ence teaching and a shift of curricu-
lar reform efforts toward the needs of
the substantial majority of students
who would not pursue scientific and
technological careers or postsecond-
ary training in technical subjects. This
reform movement went forward under
the catchy slogan “scientific literacy,”
but its other motto, “science for all,”
better expresses its true political and
pedagogical objectives.
The unquestioned focus was to in-
crease the quantity of qualified science
teachers and by doing so, the quality
of teaching. This assumption shaped
years of research on the public under-
standing of science, summarized bian-
nually by the National Science Board
in their Science and Engineering Indica-
tors series. National organizations such
as the American Association for the
Advancement of Science and the Na-
tional Academies of Sciences commis-
sioned white papers focusing on the
issue, and science-education reform
efforts were funded by the National
Science Foundation and the Depart-
ment of Education.
Over the ensuing years, the content
and approach to teaching science in
schools has varied from year to year
and from district to district. However,
the general commitment to science
for all has remained a basic tenet of
school-based science education. Also
fundamentally unchanged over the
past 25 years is the assumption by vir-
tually all within the science education
community—scientists, science educa-
tors, science learning researchers, edu-
cation policy makers and the public—
that if science for all is the goal, then
schools are the most effective conduit.
However, a range of data are emerg-
ing that suggest other interpretations
that at the very least raise important
questions about the prevailing para-
digm that schooling is the primary
mechanism for public science learn-
ing. For example, for more than a
decade, performance by U.S. school-
aged children on international tests
such as the quadrennial Trends in In-
ternational Mathematics and Science
Study (TIMSS) and the Programme
for International Student Assessment
(PISA) has followed a consistent pat-
tern. Elementary-school-aged U.S.
children perform as well as or better
The 95 Percent Solution
School is not where most Americans learn most of their science
John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking
John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking are Sea
Grant professors in free-choice science learn-
ing, College of Science, Oregon State Univer-
sity. Their research focuses on youth, adults,
and families in free-choice learning environ-
ments such as museums, libraries, and commu-
nity organizations. Falk has a joint doctorate
in biology and education from the University
of California, Berkeley. Dierking received her
Ph.D. in science education from the University of
Florida, Gainesville. Address for Falk/Dierking:
237/235 Weniger Hall, Corvallis, OR 97331.
Email: falkj@science.oregonstate.edu; dierkinl@
science.oregonstate.edu
2010 November–December 487www.americanscientist.org © 2010 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction
with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.
than most children in the world, but
the performance of older U.S. children
has been mediocre at best. Interestingly,
however, for more than 20 years, U.S.
adults have consistently outperformed
their international counterparts on sci-
ence literacy measures, including adults
from South Korea and Japan, as well
as Western European countries such as
Germany and the United Kingdom. If
schooling is the primary causative fac-
tor affecting how well the public un-
derstands science, how do we explain
these findings?
For starters, most in the U.S. science
learning community agree that the
quality of school science education is
better at the secondary level than at the
preschool and elementary levels. Re-
cent statistics show that only about 4
percent of U.S. school teachers of kin-
dergarten through second grade (K–2)
majored in science or science educa-
tion as undergraduates, and many
took no college-level science courses
at all. However, the quality of science
instruction at that level is almost a moot
point because science instruction itself
so rarely occurs. Indicative of the situ-
ation nationwide, a 2007 study of San
Francisco Bay–area elementary schools
found that 80 percent of K–5 multiple-
subject teachers who are responsible
for teaching science in their classrooms
reported spending 60 minutes or less per
week on science; 16 percent of teachers
reported spending no time at all on sci-
ence. Consistent science instruction in
U.S. schools only begins at the middle-
school level, when every student takes
at least one or two science courses, usu-
ally taught by individuals with some
Figure 1. Recent findings challenge the longstanding belief that the place for science knowledge acquisition is the classroom. International
comparisons of trends in science knowledge over lifetimes suggests that much if not most science knowledge is acquired outside of school.
This raises important questions about where our efforts should be spent if we want to improve public understanding of science. A powerful
example of free-choice exposure to science is the highly praised MythBusters television program, which exemplifies the central aspects of sci-
entific exploration: hypothesis, experiment and measurement. Here cohost Adam Savage takes on the folk knowledge that sneezes are expelled
at 100 miles per hour. A bit of snuff, a high-speed camera, a spirit of inquiry and a calculation of distance over time yields an engaging lesson
in science. And an answer: Sneezes travel about 40 miles per hour. (Photograph courtesy of The Discovery Channel.)
488 American Scientist, Volume 98 © 2010 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction
with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.
science background. Interestingly, it is
just at the point when school-based sci-
ence instruction begins in earnest that
American children start falling behind
their international peers. Meanwhile,
what accounts for the high performance
of American adults?
Although data show that taking col-
lege-level science courses dramatically
improves public science literacy, only
about 30 percent of U.S. adults have
ever taken even one college-level sci-
ence course. Thus, the superior science
literacy of the U.S. general public rela-
tive to other countries cannot be easily
explained by schooling either at the
precollege or college levels. Develop-
ers of the large-scale national science
literacy tests, the results of which are
compared internationally, claim that
these measures reliably measure the
knowledge of representative samples
of target populations, so it follows that
other factors beyond schooling must
explain or at least significantly contrib-
ute to the U-shaped pattern of Ameri-
cans’ comparative performance on sci-
ence literacy measures.
Science in the Wild
A growing body of evidence supports
the contention that the public learns
science in settings and situations out-
side of school. A 2009 report by the
National Research Council, Learn-
ing Science in Informal Environments:
Places, People and Pursuits, describes a
range of evidence demonstrating that
even everyday experiences such as a
walk in the park contribute to people’s
knowledge and interest in science and
the environment. Adults visit settings
such as national parks, science centers
and botanical gardens not only to relax
and enjoy themselves, but equally to
satisfy their intellectual curiosity and
enhance their understanding of the
natural and human-made world. Even
more common is the science people
learn while engaged in efforts to satis-
fy their personal need to know. Some-
times the need is fleeting. For example,
individuals may choose to watch a
nature show on television, or invest
time, energy and money in support-
ing their children’s science learning by
taking them to national parks, science
centers and zoos, or encourage their
children to participate in a wide vari-
ety of extracurricular experiences such
as scouting and summer nature camps.
One specific example of the role that
out-of-school institutions play in the
support of the public’s science learning
comes from more than a decade of re-
search at the California Science Center
in Los Angeles. Findings from one part
of this series of studies—large-scale,
random telephone surveys—found
that more than 60 percent of Los An-
geles residents had visited the Science
Center since it was renovated in 1998,
including residents of all races/ethnici-
ties, neighborhoods, incomes and edu-
cation levels. Findings also showed that
a majority of former visitors (95 per-
cent) self-reported that the experience
increased their understanding of sci-
ence and technology as well as piqued
their interest in science and prompted
further inquiries after the visit.
These data were validated by a
“conceptual marker” in the form of a
specific scientific concept—homeosta-
sis. Prior to the opening of the new
science center, only 7 percent of the
Los Angeles public could define this
term (including first-time visitors to
the California Science Center). How-
ever, because of a popular exhibition
experience designed to teach this con-
cept—a 50-foot animatronic woman—
a majority of Science Center visitors
could define the term upon exiting
the museum. The ability to correctly
explain this one scientific concept has
increased nearly threefold in Los An-
geles over the decade following the
reopening of the Science Center. By
tracking this conceptual marker, we
can directly attribute the increase in
understanding to visits to the Science
Center. These data, along with data
from other science centers and com-
parable free-choice science learning
settings, have shown that the majority
of visitors significantly increase their
conceptual understanding of science
on a variety of levels—basic infor-
mation, breadth and depth of under-
standing—immediately following a
visit, and for most of these individu-
als this understanding persists and
grows for two or more years after the
experience. Similar science learning
outcomes have been found for youth
and after-school program experiences,
and both print and broadcast media
sources have long since been shown to
be vital to both children’s and adults’
understanding of health, science and
environmental issues.
Historically, the majority of atten-
tion paid to out-of-school science learn-
ing, including most academic research,
has been directed to experiences like
visiting a museum, science center, zoo
or aquarium, or watching broadcast
media such as NOVA shows and the
like. Although, as suggested above,
these free-choice science learning ex-
periences are undoubtedly important
contributors to the public’s science
literacy, they represent only the most
conspicuous part of the free-choice sci-
ence learning landscape. Equally im-
portant but much less discussed and
studied are education situations that
support long-term, more in-depth op-
portunities for science learning. A wide
range of adolescents and adults are
8:00
a.m.
3:00
p.m.
time of day
life span (years)
September
June
010 20 30 40 50 60 70
months
K–12 college
science
education
Figure 2. On average, only about 5 percent of an American’s lifetime is spent in the classroom,
and only a small fraction of that is dedicated to science instruction. Emerging data suggest
that the best way to increase the public understanding of science is to reach people during the
other 95 percent of their life.
2010 November–December 489www.americanscientist.org © 2010 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction
with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.
engaged in hobbies that involve sci-
ence, including model rocketry, raising
ornamental fish, gardening, rock col-
lecting and star gazing. Hobbyists such
as these often possess deep specialized
knowledge of science and invest con-
siderable amounts of money in equip-
ment, travel, education and training
to refine their craft. Equally important
are the many events in life, often highly
personal, which demand increased un-
derstanding of science “right now.” For
example, when individuals are diag-
nosed with leukemia or heart disease,
they and their loved ones invest large
amounts of time researching websites
and medical reports in order to learn as
much as possible about the particular
disease. Similar behaviors arise when
an environmental crisis occurs such as
a toxic spill or the discovery of radon
gas seeping from the rock on which
one’s home is built. With an increas-
ingly accessible Internet, becoming in-
formed about such issues is easy, even
routine.
A small but compelling set of data
is beginning to emerge showing that
the nonstudent public also gathers
in-depth science knowledge outside
of school. Our research shows that
free-choice learning experiences rep-
resent the single greatest contributors
to adult science knowledge; childhood
free-choice learning experiences also
significantly contributed to adult sci-
ence knowledge. Schooling ranks at the
bottom of significant sources of adult
science knowledge. Specifically, our re-
search shows that science information
sources such as books, magazines, dis-
cussions with experts, and the Internet
represented the primary mechanisms
the public uses to delve more deeply
into a topic. During the recent dramas
surrounding the deep-water oil spill in
the Gulf of Mexico, news websites such
as CNN and CNBC, information web-
sites such as www.theoildrum.com and
even the government’s own NOAA
website were humming with activity as
the public tried to get below the super-
ficial headlines of the six o’clock news.
These and other data suggest that the
importance of school as a source of
science learning is actually declining
among the public as citizens utilize an
ever-broadening range of information
resources, including most dramatically
the Internet, which now represents the
major source of science information for
all citizens, including young children.
According to research conducted by the
Pew Internet & American Life Project,
2006 was the tipping point when the In-
ternet exceeded even broadcast media
as a source of public science informa-
tion. The medical profession has come
to appreciate that the public today is far
more likely to seek medical information
online than from a “live” healthcare
professional; as stated earlier, individu-
als with serious ailments use the Inter-
net for continued, deep learning about
their illnesses.
Science on the Side
Another emerging area of research in-
vestigates science-related hobbies. Re-
search conducted by Marni Berendsen,
education researcher and project direc-
tor of the NASA Night Sky Network,
showed that amateur astronomy club
members lacking college-level astron-
omy training often knew more general
astronomy than did undergraduate
astronomy majors. Research by oth-
ers has also shown hobbyists, many
with little formal training, exhibiting
high levels of knowledge and depth
of understanding. Such hobbyists of-
ten have collegial relationships with
experts in the field and some, having
put themselves in the right place at the
right time, have contributed scientific
discoveries. For example, on March
18–19, 2010, amateur astronomer Nick
Howes was working from his desk-
top computer in Great Britain using a
remotely controlled 2-meter telescope
located in Hawaii and operated by the
Faulkes Telescope Project. He dialed
up the coordinates of a comet he had
been observing, calibrated his camera
and snared a set of six photos showing
an object moving away from the icy
nucleus of the comet. What he cap-
tured was the breakup of comet C2007
C3, an observation hailed by the In-
ternational Astronomical Union as a
“major astronomical discovery.”
Investigations of everyday science
literacy have yielded other interesting
data. For example, a series of studies
by Canadian science-education re-
searcher Wolff-Michael Roth and col-
leagues found that members of an en-
vironmental activist group working on
the revitalization of a local creek and
its watershed acted and learned using
knowledge derived from a wide variety
of resources, virtually none of which
required or drew from school-based
sources. Similar research by others re-
inforces that much of what is learned in
school actually relates more to learning
for school, as opposed to learning for
life. One study found that the number
or level of mathematics courses taken
in school correlated poorly, if at all, with
mathematical performance in out-of-
school, everyday-life situations. In an-
other study of mathematics learning,
even individuals who did not do well
or were not formally trained in school
mathematics demonstrated the ability
to use math successfully in everyday
life—for example, sellers of candy in
street markets and shoppers selecting
good deals. Success in technical and
scientific training courses for ship of-
ficers was shown to be unrelated to the
relevant knowledge required onboard.
As observed by Roth and his colleagues
in their investigation of adults working
on a local environmental issue, “There
was little that looked like school sci-
ence, and there was little done in school
science that prepared these adults for
this or any other similar kinds of prob-
lematic situations in life.”
Although the role of free-choice
learning experiences remains contest-
Figure 3. Tess, the 50-foot animatronic body
simulator, is part of the World of Life per-
manent gallery at the California Science
Center in Los Angeles. When she arrived, 7
percent of Angelenos could define the term
homeostasis. That figure had almost tripled
by a decade later. (Photograph courtesy of the
California Science Center.)
490 American Scientist, Volume 98 © 2010 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction
with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.
ed, few would argue that out-of-school
experiences support the public’s sci-
ence interest and attitudes. However,
recent research by Robert H. Tai and
associates, utilizing data from the Na-
tional Educational Longitudinal Study
(NELS), pushes the potential impor-
tance of this role far beyond what most
have assumed. Tai’s research group
found that attitudes toward science ca-
reers, formed primarily during out-of-
school time in early adolescence, ap-
peared to be the single most important
factor in determining children’s future
career choices in science. Among a
random sample of 3,359 NELS partici-
pants who finished college, those who
expected at age 13 to have a science
career, compared to those with other
career expectations, were two times
more likely to have graduated with
a degree in the life sciences and three
times more likely to have a degree in
the physical sciences or engineering.
Interestingly, achievement in school
mathematics, considered a critical fil-
ter and a major focus of today’s high-
stakes testing, was not as important a
predictor as was interest in the topic.
Despite alternative interpretations
for U.S. adults’ higher science literacy
scores internationally and the growing
body of evidence supporting the criti-
cal role of free-choice learning experi-
ences, most still consider such experi-
ences a nicety rather than a necessity,
an adjunct to the serious business of
learning that takes place in classrooms.
Most policy and funding initiatives
continue to be directed towards im-
proving in-school performance based
on the rarely questioned assumption
that classroom-based education is the
exclusive route to achieving desired
educational outcomes.
A major justification for these argu-
ments is the issue of equity. After all,
schooling is the “great leveler,” the
mechanism for eliminating socioeco-
nomic disparities. If only, the argument
goes, schools could all be brought up
to comparable levels of quality, historic
inequalities could be overcome. A re-
cent study on the “performance gap”
in reading between advantaged and
disadvantaged children in Baltimore
was designed to highlight just this is-
sue; however, the results ran counter
to expectations. Data from this major
longitudinal study showed that over
the first five years of schooling, the in-
school performance gains in reading of
low-income, inner-city Baltimore chil-
dren was completely equivalent to that
of affluent, suburban Baltimore chil-
dren; in fact in some cases the inner-
city children’s gains were greater than
those shown by their more economi-
cally and socially advantaged subur-
ban counterparts. However, each and
every summer of the study, the inner-
city children fell woefully behind; the
suburban children continued to gain
in performance while the inner-city
children stagnated or even declined in
performance.
The authors concluded that much
of the “gap” in performance between
disadvantaged and advantaged chil-
dren appeared to be the consequence
of what happened outside of school.
Interestingly, these authors, and many
others who have read this research,
interpret the findings as evidence that
disadvantaged children need to spend
more time in school! Of course, an al-
ternative interpretation could be that
what happens in school is not suffi-
cient to ensure equity among all chil-
dren and adults. If, as we’ve argued
all along, school is not where Ameri-
cans learn much of what they know,
including science, then it follows that
what happens outside of school pro-
foundly influences learning. Rather
than increasing school time, perhaps
we should be investing in expanding
quality, out-of-school experiences for
disadvantaged children.
Nonacademic Academics
Supporting evidence for the impor-
tant role that out-of-school experi-
ences have on children’s learning is
emerging from a variety of fronts. For
example, a recent meta-analysis of ex-
perimental and quasi-experimental
evaluation findings for after-school
programs showed that such programs
need not be academically focused in
order to have academic impact. In fact,
because the authors were interested
in programs with a socio-emotional
learning focus, academic-only after-
school programs were not included
in the study, and investigators still
observed gains overall in the grades
children earned. Similarly, a recent
evaluation of Chicago’s After-School
Matters found that programs without
an explicit academic focus (they fo-
cused instead on career awareness and
development) had a positive effect on
several school-related outcomes, in-
cluding graduation rates and atten-
dance. On a completely different front,
data from the Programme for Inter-
national Student Assessment showed
that a major predictor of high achieve-
ment on the test was participation in
out-of-school, free-choice learning
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
0
10
20
30
40
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60
70
number of visits to informal science
or cultural institutions (percent)
public library zoo/aquarium natural history
museum
science/technology
museum
United States Japan China Russia
South Korea Brazil
United States
European Union
Figure 4. The U.S. public has a lush endowment of free-choice opportunites to learn science,
which it uses extensively. The relative patronage of science-oriented institutions shown above
may explain why the disappointing gap in science proficiency of U.S. youngsters compared to
their most advanced peers worldwide disappears as the youngsters become adults.
2010 November–December 491www.americanscientist.org © 2010 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction
with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.
experiences such as visits to science
museums.
As the Baltimore study and oth-
er research cited above make clear,
not just summer experiences but all
kinds of free-choice childhood expe-
riences significantly contribute to a
person’s science literacy; early child-
hood experiences form a particularly
critical foundation for all future sci-
ence learning. The 2009 report on
learning science in informal environ-
ments from the National Research
Council, cited earlier, found that not
only do free-choice science learn-
ing experiences jump-start a child’s
long-term interest in science topics,
they also can significantly improve
science understanding among popu-
lations typically underrepresented
in science. The report recommended
that to make informal science rele-
vant to children and youth within a
community, the development of pro-
gramming and experiences should
be a collaborative effort between the
informal science organization, local
education institutions, and other en-
tities within the community such as
science-related industries and busi-
nesses.
Similar ideas have recently been
voiced by a range of organizations,
such as the National 4-H Council
and the American Youth Policy Fo-
rum. None has stated it so clearly
and forcefully as the Harvard Family
Research Project, which stated:
The dominant assumption be-
hind much current educational
policy and practice is that school
is the only place where and when
children learn. This assumption
is wrong. Forty years of steadily
accumulating research shows that
out-of-school, or “complementary
learning” opportunities are major
predictors of children’s develop-
ment, learning, and educational
achievement. The research also
indicates that economically and
otherwise disadvantaged children
are less likely than their more-ad-
Figure 5. The ubiquity of opportunities for informal science learning is often underestimated. Informative interludes range from strolling with
a birdwatching manual to touring the hydrosphere at one of the nation’s great aquariums. Knowledge seekers can enter the boundless Web
or curl up with the iPad app The Elements—sound, scholarly and hugely popular. (Bottom left image from WebMD.com; bottom right image
courtesy of Touch Press.
Mitch Kezar/Getty Images Galen Rowell/Corbis
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with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.
vantaged peers to have access to
these opportunities. This inequity
substantially undermines their
learning and chances for school
success.
Fortunately, there are increasing op-
portunities for youth and families from
poor and underserved communities
to engage in out-of-school-time (OST)
science experiences, driven by such
efforts as the NSF Informal Science
Education program, which invests in
community-based science education ef-
forts. According to the Harvard Family
Research Project’s 2007 Study of Predic-
tors of Participation in Out-of-School-
Time Activities, participation rates in
before- and after-school programs have
increased at all levels of family income,
with the greatest increase among the
lowest-income youth. They attribute
this trend to an increasing policy fo-
cus on the benefits of OST, along with
extensive funding for the 21st Century
Community Learning Centers, a pro-
gram of the U.S. Department of Educa-
tion. They suggest that policymakers
and the public need to continue to fo-
cus on equity to ensure that this trend
continues.
Serious Fun
However, as the potential beneficial
relationship between science learning
and OST becomes better understood,
there is a temptation to hand these pro-
grams over to schools. This would be
a huge mistake. It is exactly because
free-choice learning is not like school
that it has such value. What is impor-
tant is that children and youth perceive
the free-choice learning experiences that
often occur in typical OST programs as
personally meaningful, engaging and,
dare we say, fun—what educator Da-
vid Alexander calls, “the learning that
lies between play and academics.” The
inclusion of free-choice science learn-
ing experiences in the lives of children
is essential because young children
in particular learn through play. The
prevalence of a play-oriented medium
for educational delivery, which is very
common in the free-choice parts of the
science education landscape, has been
shown to encourage children to interact
with each other, adults and the objects
surrounding them in ways that signifi-
cantly support the development of sci-
ence inquiry skills.
If OST programs are merely devic-
es to extend the school day with more
hours of the same pedagogical experi-
ences, they are unlikely to be successful,
particularly in the long term. In fact, it’s
quite likely that they will do more harm
than good by reinforcing stereotypes of
science and science professionals as dry
and boring and schoollike. Our skepti-
cism and concerns revolve around the
fact that current discussions about in-
creasing the scope and quality of OST
programs, though well-intentioned,
almost always focus on how such pro-
grams can support children and youth’s
achievement in school, rather than how
such programs should support children
and youth in life.
It seems reasonable to assume that
out-of-school science-learning experi-
ences are fundamental to supporting
and facilitating lifelong science learn-
ing. We would argue that the current
state of science literacy in America can-
not be explained otherwise. One of the
major ways that U.S. adults and chil-
dren under the age of 12 differ from
their counterparts in other countries is
their access to and use of free-choice sci-
ence learning opportunities. Compared
Figure 6. A great favorite of young and old: combustion chemistry. “When I talk to my Nobel
colleagues,” said Sir Richard Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medi-
cine, “More than half of them got interested in science via fireworks.” (Photographs courtesy
of Bryan Jackson and Zambelli Fireworks.)
2010 November–December 493www.americanscientist.org © 2010 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction
with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.
with other countries, the U.S. has a
luxurious endowment of such destina-
tions. In the same studies that demon-
strated high correlations between adult
science literacy and levels of school-
ing, utilization of the free-choice science
learning landscape was a strong cor-
relate, as was shown in the Los Angeles
findings discussed earlier in this article.
In other words, utilization of these re-
sources could be a primary or at least
a highly important causal factor in U.S.
adults’ relatively high performance on
international measures of science lit-
eracy and interest.
Similarly, the simplest explanation
for why American 8-year-olds do so
well compared with their counter-
parts in other countries on the TIMSS
and PISA tests is that young Ameri-
can children have greater exposure to
free-choice science learning opportu-
nities than do children in any other
country. Unfortunately, utilization of
these learning opportunities declines
precipitously after age 12 in the U.S.
As has been shown repeatedly, the best
predictor of student success in school
is family life. The quality of parent-
ing is more important than socioeco-
nomic factors, race/ethnicity or qual-
ity of school. Children with parents
who support their learning at home do
better than children with parents who
do not. A logical and perhaps more ef-
fective way for parents to support their
children’s learning beyond providing
homework help is through free-choice
learning experiences. However, as
the Baltimore research cited above so
clearly highlights, the availability and
opportunities for accessing free-choice
science learning experiences are not in-
dependent of income and geography.
By challenging the assumption that
school is the primary place where
Americans learn science, our goal is not
to diminish the importance and value
of schooling, but rather to suggest that
what goes on in the other 95 percent of
a citizen’s life may be equally impor-
tant, and possibly more important to
increasing science literacy among the
public. Although we are not advocating
any diminishment in the efforts to im-
prove and expand school-based science
education, we do strongly propose that
it is time to seriously question whether,
in the 21st century, schooling should
continue to be viewed as the most im-
portant and effective mechanism for
advancing the public’s scientific interest
and understanding.
Insufficient data exist to conclusively
demonstrate that free-choice science
learning experiences currently contrib-
ute more to public understanding of
science than in-school experiences, but
a growing body of evidence points in
this direction. There certainly are in-
sufficient data to refute the claim that
free-choice learning is vitally impor-
tant. Surely the best informed and most
science-literate citizens are those who
enjoy maximal benefits from both in-
and out-of-school science learning op-
portunities. Thus, we would argue for
increased efforts to measure the cumu-
lative and complementary influences
of both in- and out-of-school science
learning. However, given that at pres-
ent school-based science education
efforts receive an order of magnitude
more resources than free-choice learn-
ing options, even a modest change in
this ratio could make a huge difference.
The data suggest it would be a wise
investment.
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http://www.americanscientist.org/
issues/id.87/past.aspx
Figure 7. This child at play receives lessons in the physiology of hearing, the physics of sound,
and the mechanics of biological adaptation, as well as the chance to pretend to be a fox.
Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis
... Early research identified informal science learning (ISL) experiences as impacting students' attitudes towards science and belief in their abilities to do science [22]. ISL is often accessed in out-of-school contexts, and is thought to facilitate sustained interest in science and to support identity trajectories into science [23][24][25]. The National Research Council in its report on ISL [23] describe these environments as constituting a broad array of settings including designed settings like museums and science centers [26]; or in contexts like summer programs and camps [27], and everyday settings like science encounters in the home, supported by caregivers engaging youth in science talk [28][29][30]. ...
... Falk and Dierking [30] argue that ISL settings can create entry points for youth who have not previously been engaged by science in school. They argue further that participation in ISL programs can have more positive impacts on science trajectories than school science, because long-term participation in ISL activities may expose young people to more science than they have the opportunity to learn in school [25,31]. This may be associated with long-term positive outcomes in science learning such as associating positive memories with science [32] and sustained interest in science [33]. ...
... At the same time, nonconceptual gains like "mastering" physics and having a "feel for" physics render participation in classroom physics risky, as the inverse (not mastering physics, or not having a feel for it) may position students incompetently. Conversely, IPL spaces may provide opportunities to develop "practice-linked identities" [45] which are unavailable to secondary aged youth through physics engagement in regular secondary school classrooms [25]. Nasir and Hand argue that practice-linked identities are "the identities that people come to take on, construct, and embrace that are linked to participation in particular social and cultural practices" [45] (p. ...
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For young women, inbound identity trajectories into physics are generally regarded as exceptional. In this study, we investigated the experiences that young women have which may support their sustained interest and achievement in physics, and their ongoing inbound trajectories into post-secondary physics education. To understand these experiences, we look to the role of informal physics learning (IPL) environments as spaces which can offer resources that support women’s trajectories into physics. In this paper, we highlight the important role of what we call “university-adjacent” IPL experiences—internships, summer schools, and associations that connect secondary students with the research lives of physicists. Focusing on case studies of six women enrolled in post-secondary physics programs across Sweden, we identify the various forms of resources made available through IPL environments, and how these create possibilities for young women to engage in forms of identity work that contribute to the construction of new possible selves in physics. Findings suggest that young women can access important relational and ideational resources through university-adjacent IPL programs. Relational resources included (a) supportive social networks, (b) enduring relationships, and (c) relatability. Importantly, our research finds that IPL opportunities that emphasize relationship building can create immersive experiences which go beyond representation and rather emphasize opportunities to develop practice-linked identities. Ideational resources emerged as (a) sources of information which possibilized physics for participants, and (b) types of information that provided possibilities to learn about the life of a physicist. Finally, while we claim that IPL experiences provide important possibilities for young women to immerse themselves in the practices of physics, we also discuss that these kinds of experiences remain inaccessible to most students, and thus reproduce a certain elitism in the field.
... Even worse, some of these students feel that they are not "smart enough" for science. Yet there are many exciting projects underway that have found that ethnic minority students from urban, low-income communities do, in fact, develop sustained interest in science (Dierking & Falk, 2010); however, what the research also suggests is that interest in science is not always cultivated in traditional venues like school classrooms, and in fact, more often develops in out-of-school learning environments (Dierking & Falk, 2010). Recent work in counseling psychology and educational psychology suggests that the development of science interest occurs slowly and is full of fits and starts, but generally consists of four interrelated phases (Hidi & Renninger, 2006 Each phase has differing levels of value and affect and is dependent on the person's experience, temperament, and genetics. ...
... Even worse, some of these students feel that they are not "smart enough" for science. Yet there are many exciting projects underway that have found that ethnic minority students from urban, low-income communities do, in fact, develop sustained interest in science (Dierking & Falk, 2010); however, what the research also suggests is that interest in science is not always cultivated in traditional venues like school classrooms, and in fact, more often develops in out-of-school learning environments (Dierking & Falk, 2010). Recent work in counseling psychology and educational psychology suggests that the development of science interest occurs slowly and is full of fits and starts, but generally consists of four interrelated phases (Hidi & Renninger, 2006 Each phase has differing levels of value and affect and is dependent on the person's experience, temperament, and genetics. ...
... It includes settings such as aquariums, museums, and zoos; science and nature centres; scouting and boys' and girls' clubs; school-based afterschool and summer programmes; and public science events, cafes, and festivals. Research by Falk and his colleagues suggest the majority of science learning may take place outside of school, at home (e.g., watching science documentaries, visiting science websites), or in the types of informal settings listed above (Falk & Dierking, 2010;Falk & Needham, 2013). ...
... An ongoing challenge for informal science educators is to express scientific information accurately to the layperson (Rennie, 2014). Much research has been dedicated to understanding how information is portrayed and what people learn and expect to learn at these informal science settings (Anderson, Maple, & Bloomsmith, 2010;Falk & Dierking, 2010;Falk & Storksdieck, 2010;Fraser, Bicknell, Sickler, & Taylor, 2009), but few, if any, have explored the Disneyfication (Schickel, 1986), Disneyization (Bryman, 1999(Bryman, , 2004, and scientific Discourse (Gee, 1999(Gee, , 2004 inside of Disney's informal learning environments. The purpose of this project was to use discourse analysis (Gee, 1999(Gee, , 2004 to examine how scientific information is communicated to Disney's guests. ...
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Learning Around the Clock: Benefits of Expanded Learning Opportunities for Older Youth. Washington, D.C.: American Youth Policy Forum
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  • B Brand
Bowles, A., and B. Brand. 2009. Learning Around the Clock: Benefits of Expanded Learning Opportunities for Older Youth. Washington, D.C.: American Youth Policy Forum.
Linking after-school programs and STEM learning: A view from another window. Commissioned position paper for the Coalition for After-School Science
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Dierking. L. D. 2007. Linking after-school programs and STEM learning: A view from another window. Commissioned position paper for the Coalition for After-School Science. New York, NY.
The Status of Science Education in the Bay Area
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Dorph, R., et al. 2007. The Status of Science Education in the Bay Area: Research Brief.
The engaged E-patient population
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Fox, S. 2008. The engaged E-patient population. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Findings from HFRP's study of predictors of participation in out-of-school time activities: Fact sheet The Internet as a resource for news and information about science
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Harvard Family Research Project. 2007. Findings from HFRP's study of predictors of participation in out-of-school time activities: Fact sheet. http://www.hfrp.org/ content/download/1072/48575/file/find- ings_predictor_OSTfactsheet.pdf Horrigan, J. 2006. The Internet as a resource for news and information about science. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Findings from HFRP's study of predictors of participation in out-of-school time activities: Fact sheet
  • Harvard Family
  • Research Project
Harvard Family Research Project. 2007. Findings from HFRP's study of predictors of participation in out-of-school time activities: Fact sheet. http://www.hfrp.org/ content/download/1072/48575/file/find- ings_predictor_OSTfactsheet.pdf