Free-Choice Science

Study confirms benefits of learning centers, museums

In a world confronted with greenhouse gases, emergent diseases, energy shortages, natural disasters, habitat loss, species extinctions and a thousand other urgent issues, public understanding of science is more essential than ever. Now, an OSU study reveals a powerful vehicle for enhancing science literacy in local communities: science museums.

Under the guidance of volunteer docent Harry Tomson, the touch tank at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport captivates Noah Goodwin-Rice, left, and his mom Cait Goodwin. (Photo: Jim Folts)

Under the guidance of volunteer docent Harry Tomson, the touch tank at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport captivates Noah Goodwin-Rice, left, and his mom Cait Goodwin. (Photo: Jim Folts)

Science museums like the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland aren’t new. But the strength of their impact surprises even museum expert and advocate John Falk, a professor of science education and renowned proponent of “free-choice” (beyond school) learning.

“Overall, the results were staggering — much more positive than I could have imagined,” says Falk, who led the multi-year study of visitors to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Not only did thousands of visitors and their children report learning a lot about science and technology from the museum, but they also got a big boost in long-term interest. Many of them could even define the term “homeostasis” after viewing an exhibit where a 50-foot-tall animated puppet named Tess explained the biological process.

One of the takeaway messages: Classrooms are only one source of science learning.

“It has long been assumed that formal schooling is the primary mechanism by which the public learns science,” explain Falk and his coauthor Mark Needham in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. “But in recent years there has been a growing appreciation for the fundamental role played by the vast array of non-school science education institutions.”

Hard data on the role museums play in science learning gives momentum to the growing free-choice movement. Museums and other programs outside the K-12 system exist as “launching points” that inspire people to seek more understanding and explore on their own, says Falk.

“Many people have believed that such institutions could do this,” he adds. “But this study provides some of the first definitive evidence that it works.”

 

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