Science Learning in Informal Environments

Scientific knowledge is acquired through both personal and social methods (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Scott, & Mortimer, 1994). The social aspect of science is based on construction, validation and communication through the scientific community. As a result, the act of learning science requires individuals to be guided or initiated through these established concepts and practices. Ultimately, the science educator fulfills this role of mediator who makes “personal sense of the ways in which knowledge claims are generated and validated.”

On an individual or personal level, scientific knowledge exists as cognitive schemes change and develop due to new experiences. Intellectual development occurs when an individual interacts with the physical environment and existing schemes are adapted and modified into new ones with these new experiences. While social interactions play a role in learning and development, learning and meaning can only occur on an individual level through the conceptual change of old schemes as a result of experience.

In the classroom environment, students are able to reflect on their own and their peers’ thoughts “in attempting to understand and interpret phenomena for themselves.” The role of the educator is two-fold: to provide novel experiences and promote reflection. These experiences include both physical experiences as well as access to scientific concepts and models that students might not yet be aware.

One avenue for educators to provide additional experience beyond the classroom is out-of-school settings like The Exploratorium in San Francisco, California. This and other informal learning environments provide opportunities for lifelong and everyday learning. Hsi (2008) states that information technology (IT) through these environments is transforming the ways in which informal learners are able to “support their curiosity and interests.” Learners are able to access and accentuate their learning through IT “before, during and after their visits.” Further, remote learners are also able to access “standalone virtual explorations” through the Web. The Exploratorium website ( offers a variety of activities, apps, blogs, videos and other websites to explore. Specifically, a learner interested in solar eclipses could, for instance, use the app on the website to further their own understanding of the concept. This way of learning allows students to experience content material from a different perspective and thus, an alternative to the traditional pedagogy teaching.

Falk and Storksdieck (2010) state that learning for performance and learning for identity-building were inversely related. They argue that learning for performance is typical of school environments however, learning can also be “motivated for purely intrinsic reasons” and have “everything to do with the process of identity-related self-satisfaction. Informal learning environments, such as the Exploratorium, afford opportunities for both learning for performance and learning for identity-building. As educators, while learning for performance is typically a primary focus, learning for identity-building should not be neglected. How do we further encourage identity-building in or out of classrooms?


Driver, R., Asoko, H., Leach, J., Scott, P., & Mortimer, E. (1994). Constructing scientific knowledge in the classroom. Educational researcher, 23(7), 5-12.

Falk, J. & Storksdieck, M. (2010). Science learning in a leisure setting. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(2), 194-212. Available in Course Readings.

Hsi, S. (2008). Information technologies for informal learning in museums and out-of-school settings. International handbook of information technology in primary and secondary education, 20(9), 891-899.



  1. Darren,

    I like the distinction you made between learning for performance and learning for identity-building. I agree that affirming their sense of identity helps to provide intrinsic motivation for learning and promoting life-long learning. I think much of what has been discussed regarding making learning relevant and unique to the individual will help with identity-building. Also, it seems that most adults appreciate their education if they can accomplish something with it, giving them a sense of purpose. With students, perhaps something similar can be done to attach their newfound knowledge to the ability to accomplish something more than scoring well on a test or completing a task provided by the teacher. I find many of the robotics classes/clubs I’ve seen do this well since the students are able to not only accomplish something challenging, but also solve the problem in their own way.

  2. Hi Darren,
    Like yourself, I found many of the programs that we were able to explore this past week effective at creating lifelong learning opportunities for students. I really found experiences like the Exploratorium filled with so many different opportunities to create excellent learning experiences. It’s wonderful when opportunities can be created where the students forget they are actually doing “science work” because they are so actively engaged in their activity. The Exploratorium really invites students to become a part of the activity and extend their learning to the application when they are at home.

  3. Hi Darren,

    Interesting look at the Exploratorium and the role of science centres in the representation and diffusion of scientific knowledge through their online exhibits and virtual trips. The identity question is an element in math and science education research. One of the aspects that this body of research has delved into is the difference between a science/math identity vs identifying with [the subject area] as well as the “binary” of doing science vs being a scientist. Angela Calabrese Barton and Jon Osborne have done some work in this area that would be worth checking out. Darren, in terms of identity formation during an online visit to the Exploratorium, I am wondering too how we might foster being a scientist in pre and post teacher and student activities to the visit?

    Thanks for your input, Samia

  4. As a teacher, I think science centres have a potential role in garnering and promoting science learning for the classroom. However, the ability to effectively foster a scientific mind, I believe, is more likely to occur when the main theme or exhibit at the centre is correlated with a specific curriculum topic. For example, Science World (here in Vancouver) once hosted the Body Worlds exhibit which had obvious curricular connections with Science 9 and Biology 12. This event would definitely assist with both promoting science and encourage teachers to bring their classes to such events. Without a concise exhibit like Body Worlds, it can be difficult to justify bringing an entire class (or classes) to the centre.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.