For many parents, taking the kids to the aquarium or a hands-on science museum combines fun and learning.
Like parents, education researcher Doris Ash sees facilities like the Exploratorium, Seymour Marine Discovery Center, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium as pathways that help all cross sections of the community learn about science while having a good time.
"Museums make science accessible and engaging," said Ash, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "Visitors sometimes don't recognize they're 'doing science,' but they are."
Called "informal science education," the learning that takes place at aquaria, zoos, and natural history museums enriches classroom learning and engages people in ways that schools sometimes can't. Such venues have become laboratories for Ash and other researchers eager to gauge the impact of museums on the learning process.
Ash recently received a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a five-year study of informal science education with Judith Lombana, vice president of research and institutional development at the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, Florida.
"One hundred years ago, natural history museums were where the public learned most of what they knew about the natural world and conservation," said Ash. "There's value in looking at real objects and living things. It enhances the quality of learning in ways we don't even understand."
Ash, a trained biologist and former classroom teacher, is impressed by the scientific reasoning that takes place in museums. "People start asking questions, observing features, comparing and categorizing what they see, and they make connections," said Ash, who is especially interested in the impact of informal science learning on "nontraditional" visitors, including the poor and those with limited or no English skills.
"Families who can't read the display materials because they don't speak English are still very engaged in making sense of what they're seeing," she added. "The life sciences are so profound, and we all know something about them. In the absence of more specific knowledge, parents enter the conversation and families work together to bring meaning to the experience."
Cognitive and developmental psychologists have determined that even young children can make connections about living things, noting for example that they grow and reproduce. Less is known about when and how people grasp notions of form and function, which are other ways of reasoning about living things, she said.
At MOSI, Ash's team will videotape families to document and later analyze the interactions that occur among people with different levels of knowledge. Ultimately, her insights into the learning process could help museum educators improve their services and reveal successful strategies that could be carried over into classrooms.
Ash has researched informal science learning at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. She is a member of UCSC's Informal Learning Group, which has extensive expertise working with bilingual and English-speaking families in informal settings. MOSI is at the forefront of museum efforts to enhance educator training and museum programs by participating in research projects with practical applications.