Oregon State University

Innovation in education at work in Portland

New research being conducted in the Portland area is teaching us about how we learn. Oregon State University faculty and research partners like the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry are answering this question: How do instructors create education endeavors that keep us captivated and address our own interests and curiosities?

Professors John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking call this field of study “free-choice learning research”.

Falk and Dierking say that education should be a community-wide endeavor that begins with the needs, interests and curiosities of the learners themselves.

Museums like OMSI, as well as the Oregon Zoo and Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, offer the perfect space to study free-choice learning.

OMSI’s exhibits are designed to be experienced with all five senses and require problem-solving skills in subjects like science, engineering and biology.

Scott Patterson, research and evaluation strategist for OMSI, says this encourages visitors to be engaged in what they learn at the museum. He believes science educators should think about learning broadly so that learners become interested and engaged in scientific subjects.

Shawn Rowe who holds a Ph.D. in education and tracks visitor engagement at Hatfield Marine Science Center. Along with a team of graduate students, this research explores how technology and signage influence guest behavior and responsiveness.

Research has shown that without efforts to maintain and further develop the interests of students in STEM-based fields, interest will decline by eighth grade. Through the research project known as SYNERGIES with a goal to connect STEM learning in the community and its companion educational action project – Advancing SCILS (STEM, Creativity and Invention Learning through SYNERGIES), Oregon State and community partners are working together to solve learning challenges both inside and outside of the classroom.

Oregon State researchers have also determined that free-choice learning can be broken down into three major dimensions: the physical, the personal, and the sociocultural. Each of these dimensions plays a role in how an individual learns. Whether designing an exhibition in a museum, historical site, zoo, or science center, or developing an after-school program, taking these principles into account is critically important to learning success.

Oregon State University offers opportunities for professionals, students, and volunteers to learn more about research and principles through a graduate program (Master’s and Ph.D.) as well as a professional certificate program offered by Professional and Noncredit Education.

The Free-Choice Learning Professional Certificate is designed for museum staff, volunteers, community college and adult educators, and those conducting science-based outreach. The four-course certificate teaches students to design, examine, and understand FCL environments and programs. Taught by leading researchers in the field. This certificate mirrors the FCL Master’s and Doctoral programs’ content. 


Article by Professional and Noncredit Education. Oregon State Alumni receive a 10 percent discount on continuing education opportunities through Professional and Noncredit Education.


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