Leaders in science education gather at UCSC this week for a five-day conference on informal learning

Leaders in science education will gather at the University of California, Santa Cruz, this week to explore the connections between the informal science learning that takes place in settings such as museums and the more formal learning that takes place in schools.

The five-day conference brings together participants in the Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS), an international collaboration between UC Santa Cruz, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and King's College London. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), CILS aims to invigorate science education in schools by studying how children learn in informal settings and by strengthening the relationships between museums and schools.

Bruce Alberts, director of the National Academy of Sciences, and Judith Ramalay, assistant director for education and human resources at NSF, will be among the speakers at the conference, which begins Friday, August 15. Called the Bay Area Institute, the conference will include discussion sessions, research presentations, and field trips to local informal science institutions where CILS faculty have been doing research.

Doris Ash, an assistant professor of education at UCSC, has been investigating informal science learning by videotaping and interviewing visitors (after obtaining their consent) at UCSC's Seymour Marine Discovery Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Ash described one memorable interaction between a mother and daughter visiting the Seymour Center that illustrates the value such informal settings can have for science education.

"They were at an exhibit on elephant seals and were talking about how elephant seals dive and their adaptations, and the daughter was very excited; there was a lot of conversation. Then the mother said something like, 'This is really interesting science.' And the daughter said, 'I hate science!'" Ash recalled. "She'd been doing wonderful science, but she didn't recognize it because it wasn't like the formal lessons in school."

One of the goals of CILS is to find ways to transfer to the classroom some of the excitement that informal settings can generate. While there has been a great deal of research on classroom learning, relatively few studies have been done on informal learning, said Barbara Rogoff, a professor of psychology at UCSC.

"Informal learning is very widespread--it occurs in museums, in the way we learn our first language, in the way many people learn to use a computer, in many after-school settings, and even in some schools. But there hasn't been much research on it. People have assumed that informal learning takes place much the same way learning occurs in the classroom, but there are important differences," Rogoff said.

Common features of informal learning include active involvement by the learner and collaboration between people with different levels of expertise, both of which seem to play an important role in motivating people in informal settings, Rogoff said. Her research in immigrant communities where most people haven't had much formal schooling suggests that informal learning styles may hold valuable lessons for educators.

"Their ways of learning are very effective, which is often surprising to people who have spent a lot of time in school," Rogoff said. "That is an important resource for helping schools to work more effectively."

Studies of informal science learning can also suggest ways to improve institutions such as museums to make them more appealing to diverse populations. Ash, for example, is studying bilingual families and how they make sense of the science they encounter in exhibits. Maureen Callanan, a professor of psychology, is collaborating with Ash, and has also looked at gender differences in informal settings.

In a study done at the Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose, Callanan found that parents tend to spend more time explaining science to boys than to girls. Her findings prompted museum staff to develop a new exhibit, called "Alice's Wonderland," that presented science and math content in a scene that would be interesting to girls. At that exhibit, parents explained as much to girls as to boys.

"We worked very closely with the museum on that exhibit. They would design prototypes and then we would study how families interacted with them and provide feedback to the designers," Callanan said.

The Bay Area Institute is the first major conference for CILS. Researchers, educators, and museum professionals, as well as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows affiliated with CILS, will be among the participants. CILS offers doctoral programs that examine learning theory and practice from formal and informal perspectives, a professional development program for museum-based teacher educators exploring strategies for supporting formal education systems, and postdoctoral research appointments.