Backgrounder: Informal Science Learning
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania … The majority of a person’s lifelong experiences with science come not in school but through informal educational interactions such as visiting museums, listening to radio, or watching television, according to research cited by the National Research Council.* While high-quality science education in the schools is crucial, efforts to enhance and integrate informal science-learning experiences throughout the community can be equally important to advancing science literacy for all age groups.
[*Read NRC’s report; http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12190&page=11]
Those who study learning in out-of-school environments focus on what they call a “learning ecology”—a web of schools, museums, zoos, community groups, and family experiences that combine to create a powerful foundation for people to learn and get excited about science. Research on informal science education in museums seeks to understand the dynamic interactions between museum exhibitions, visitors, and staff that result in knowledge gain and increased interest in science. As our understanding of this “ecology of learning” grows, it will add to a knowledge base of best practices that can be adopted by other museums and other organizations. Carnegie Museum of Natural History has historically been a leader in scientific research in fields such as evolutionary biology, biodiversity studies, and conservation biology. Now, with the new Center for Lifelong Science Learning, the museum is adding a new capacity to investigate the processes of informal science learning, addressing a critical priority in our national education agenda.
Some of the major players in the study of informal science education are located here in Pittsburgh, and, through the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE), are already actively collaborating with the museum. With the established relationship and physical proximity of the University of Pittsburgh to Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Center for Lifelong Science Learning is ready to create a new model for how natural history museums function in a regional learning ecology.
“It’s not unique that museums and universities are trying to collaborate around learning,” says UPCLOSE director Kevin Crowley. “What’s unique is the scale of this collaboration, and that the museum is opening up its institutional structure to really look for ways for this Center to change the way we think, talk, and make decisions about learning.”
Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, is ranked among the top five natural history museums in the country. It maintains, preserves, and interprets an extraordinary collection of 20 million objects and scientific specimens used to broaden understanding of evolution, conservation, and biodiversity. More information is available by calling 412.622.3131 or by visiting the Web site, www.carnegiemnh.org.
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