Learning Science in Everyday Life


Educational researchers, scholars, theoreticians, and practitioners define, interpret, and study out-of school science education in various ways. Some use the term informal, while others prefer free-choice, outdoor education, everyday learning or lifelong learning. Preferences reflect theory, settings and practice, but regardless of the terminology, all researchers who are engaged in learning that occurs outside of schools are convinced that a wide range of environments—structured and unstructured—afford various types of engagement and learning. Learning science in such environments has received much attention in the past two decades with increased focus for school-aged children on the role of connecting in-school and out-of-school time. In addition to children though, researchers and practitioners also investigate and support the learning of families, older youth and adults.

Following NARST Board acceptance of a 2002 policy statement in the area of informal/free-choice science education research developed by the “Informal Science Education” Ad Hoc Committee, JRST dedicated its first special issue to informal science education in 2003 (Volume 40, 2); the NARST policy statement was published in this issue (Dierking, Falk, Rennie, Anderson, & Ellenbogen, 2003). It acknowledged the infancy of research in this arena; consequently the issue's call for papers focused on innovative methodologies and theoretical frameworks to advance the field. The resulting issue (Feher & Rennie, 2003) included a range of research methodologies, although all papers but two focused on learning within and from museum-like settings. The exceptions were one paper focused on the boundary crossing required of children between home and school science learning (Solomon, 2003) and the other exploring how four genres of television science (network news, documentary, magazine-format programming, and dramatic, fictional programming) influence how high-school-aged youth understand the nature of science (Dhingra, 2003). Of the seven research articles published, all but three focused on school groups and/or students in school.

A decade later the field has matured in many ways. In particular the U.S. NRC consensus report, Learning science in informal environments: People, places and pursuits (Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, & Feder, 2009) recognized that there was abundant evidence that informal/free-choice science learning efforts, even everyday experiences such as playing in a park, contribute to children and adults' engagement, understanding and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This report considers learning as life-long, life-wide and life-deep, and accordingly examined evidence of learning that occurs in many venues and configurations. By life-long the authors refer to continuous learning that occurs through a person's life course; life-wide is the learning that occurs across social settings and activities: classrooms, after-school programs, informal education institutions, homes and so forth, and life-deep learning refers to “beliefs, ideologies, and values associated with living life and participating in the cultural workings of both communities and the broader society” (p. 28). Appreciating that there are overlaps in any effort to organize such learning, the report described three venues and/or configurations in which people learn science in informal environments: in designed environments such as museum-like settings; in everyday settings and during family activities; and, within out-of-school youth and adult programs.

However, to put this current special issue in context, it is most important to revisit the research recommendations presented in the “Toward an agenda for advancing research on science learning in out-of-school settings” (Rennie, Feher, Dierking, & Falk, 2003) and the aforementioned policy statement of the NARST informal science education ad hoc committee (Dierking et al., 2003), both published in the 2003 JRST special issue. The policy statement states that:

Informal learning is the most commonly applied term for the science learning that occurs outside of the traditional, formal schooling realm (pre-college, technical schools, community colleges, university and advanced degrees) but the term has significant limitations because it artificially delimits efforts to describe the type of real world learning that humans engage in daily; learning that occurs across a broad spatial and temporal context, both inside and outside of schooling (p.118).

These articles further suggested that at its core this arena of research is an effort to conceptualize and understand real world science learning, learning that rarely, if ever, occurs and develops from a single experience. Rather, learning in general, and science learning in particular, is cumulative, emerging over time through myriad human experiences, including, but not limited to learning opportunities in museum-like settings, schools, while watching television, reading newspapers and books, conversing with friends and family, and increasingly frequently, through interactions with the Internet. The experiences children and adults have in these various moments dynamically interact, influencing the ways individuals construct scientific understanding, attitudes, and behaviors. In this view, learning is an organic, dynamic, never-ending, and quite holistic phenomenon of constructing personal meaning. This broad view of learning recognizes that much of what people come to know about the world, including the world of science content and process, derive from real world experiences within a diversity of appropriate physical and social contexts, motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn.

Rennie et al. (2003) also made six recommendations to enhance research in this area: (1) investigate learning in authentic situations, so that learning is studied in “real” contexts; (2) include multiple, creative methodologies for assessing learning in a variety of ways; (3) explore opportunities for the group to be the unit of analysis, as well as individuals; (4) include efforts to investigate the learning that happens both at home and in the community, in order to demonstrate connections between these experiences and other environments, such as schools; (5) investigate the processes of learning, as well as the products of learning; and, (6) use longitudinal designs that offer opportunities to track children and adults for several years to see how experiences are used and connected to subsequent experiences.

The article also stated that although historically much of the research on science learning outside of school has focused on museum-like settings, there is great variety among the institutions and organizations involved in learning science in everyday life, both unstructured experiences, as well as the purposeful planning, curriculum development, and research of individuals, families, school groups and adults engaged in informal science education activities. Museums, aquariums, botanical gardens, zoos, and nature centers certainly offer their visitors and users a great variety of learning opportunities. The authors noted in 2003 that clearly lacking, were comparable studies of learning from after-school providers, home-based activities, community-based participation in organizations such as scouts, special interest groups, hobbies and pursuits, Boys and Girls clubs, summer camps, etc. and experiences with media (printed, electronic, Internet, and social networks), all a part of this diverse community of practice.

One other interesting subtext in this article was the discussion that because there is high interest in how motivating and engaging these environments and learning in them can be, there should be an effort by the science education field to recreate such environments and activities in order to connect to children's daily lives in school. Although well-meaning, such perspectives neglect to appreciate that it is the very nature of these environments and the learning that happens within people's actual daily lives that is so intrinsically motivating and engaging to them. Thus the aim of research and practice in science education broadly written, should not only be about connecting people's everyday lives to school and other formal learning, but rather should focus on understanding (and supporting) their science learning in everyday life.

The Special Issue

Recognizing changes in this realm of research, in this special issue we highlight scholarship that focuses on informal science education from a broad perspective of varied settings, institutions/organizations, learners, and authentic activity. This abundance and diversity in the practices of this community encourages educational research that focuses on many questions, framed within varied paradigms that employ a variety of methods.

Initially, many researchers in this area used similar definitions for learning as in schools, thus similar approaches to “measuring” that learning. However, over the last decade researchers have begun to employ a diversity of theoretical lenses and methodologies. The Contextual Model of Learning (Falk & Dierking, 2000) conceptualized learning as a process of complex interactions over time between and among personal, socio-cultural and physical dimensions, as a tool for understanding learning more holistically and contextually, that is to understand the “what, where, when, why, and with whom” of learning (Falk & Dierking, 1995, p. 4). Interestingly, although originally conceived to describe learning in and from museums, the goal ultimately was to focus on the nature of the learning that people engage in, rather than necessarily where the learning happens. These ideas, and those of others, have pushed researchers to study learners' engagement, activity, discourse, and identity work, in addition to measuring cognitive learning outcomes. Socio-cultural theories and frameworks have guided much of this research, with additions from critical theory, research on third spaces, organizational theory, boundary crossing, learning sciences and others. The research topics represented in this issue demonstrate this diversity: cognitive, sociocultural and affective outcomes of informal science education experiences, fostering and maintaining interest in, and motivation to learn science, understanding the development of science-related identity, multi-generational interactions, school-informal science institutional collaboration and informal science education institutions' role in promoting diversity.

Papers on similar topics in the 2003 issue, and in this current issue, concretely demonstrate how the research has matured over the last decade. For instance, it is interesting to compare and contrast the focus of Solomon's paper on boundary crossing between home and school with Bricker's article in this issue. Solomon acknowledged the uniqueness of home culture and the need to use authentic materials and objects rather than packaged science kits and other curriculum-like materials, but the families she studied were equipped with structured activities and sets of directions. A decade afterwards, Bricker studies science activity and discourse in the home environment in a different, more authentic way. She documents and talks with the family, but is interested in their own created activities and in how these develop over time.

Another interesting difference is found in the two papers Jim Kisiel was involved with then and now. In 2003, he was a co-author of a paper that identified many challenges related to school visits to a science center. Cox-Petersen, Marsh, Kisiel, & Melber (2003) main finding characterized school visits as more formal than science lessons in schools. They were didactic; the group moved from one exhibit to the other and primarily listened to explanations. Content was often delivered by docents who asked simple content-focused questions; more open-ended deep questions were in a minority. The authors claimed that although the museum could potentially be a place in which to promote inquiry-based experiences, such experiences were rarely provided. Most interestingly is that both teachers and museum educators wanted students to feel comfortable enough in the museum to have meaningful experiences that would enhance their curiosity and engagement. A decade later, Kisiel continues to study relationships between teachers and informal educators, however, broadens the view beyond field trips to include other museum offerings for teachers such as outreach programs to schools and professional development. He uses a sociocultural framework to analyze and explain the two cultures as a means for understanding ways to bridge the two communities.

Overall, this special issue presents a diverse “slice” of the research being conducted in the field of science learning in everyday contexts. Demonstrating the complexity of this research, we cannot say that all papers dealt with out-of-school time. Nor we can say they are focused on museum-like settings or any other institution or organization. They involve schools, a youth club, ISIs, and a journal editorial office, pointing to the difficulty in defining what informal science education is, or what out-of-school science is, or even what science learning in everyday contexts is (perhaps even science learning in general). However, this variation of settings, scope and scale indicates the richness of the research field and broadens the angle of what we view as fitting into this arena of research.

Boundary-crossing emerges as an important theme in this issue. As Akkerman and Bakker (2011) indicate, the emerging body of literature on boundary crossing and boundary objects directs researchers to look across and between multiple social worlds, and thus expand research on learning to include multiple domains and settings. Although, as they argue, boundaries also have an ambiguous nature, “multivoicedness and the unspecificity at boundaries trigger dialogue and negotiation of meaning, explaining why encounters of boundaries are often described not only as challenging but also as worthwhile to investigate in relation to learning” (p. 150).

The ambiguous nature of boundaries, and at the same time, the opportunities they afford for fostering new dialogues, is expressed in the articles in this issue. In article 1, Bricker longitudinally follows one girl's participation in science across her day, life and settings, noting how different activities constrain and afford her learning. In article 2, Birmingham and Calabrese Barton document how youth are continuously crossing borders between school science and real life problems; being students and being citizens; and, learning content and/or producing knowledge and taking action relevant to their lives and community. In article 3, Polman and Hope studied youth participating in a science journalism project in which they identified boundary objects that inhabit several intersecting social worlds and demonstrate how these boundary objects and the repositioning of youth within an ecology of learning opportunities (school, an informal education program at an ISI, a university and a science newspaper) offered youth choice, agency, mentorship by professionals and opportunities to move out of the classroom into the real world to engage actively in personally meaningful experiences which helped to develop and foster science-related identities. In article 4, Kisiel uses the concept of boundary crossing in two ways. First, as the practice generated by two interacting communities: the community of the school and the informal education institution's community. This practice creates a boundary community that is different than the two original communities. He refers to boundary activities, encounters between the communities that include designed programs such as field trips to museums, outreach programs in schools or professional development for teachers. The boundary “sphere” Kisiel refers to, describes the complexity of the interaction that involves different institutions, stakeholders, agents and goals. In their article, Feinstein and Meshulam discuss the gap between the museum's “regular visiting” audience and the diverse public as a gulf that should be connected. They endorse a more reciprocal relationship between ISIs and their diverse “publics” and highlight the need for a shared mission and purpose and deep commitment to collaboration. Although the term boundary appears only once in the paper, the research is positioned in the boundary between how ISIs perceive the diversity of their public (or publics), the related practice they adopt and what the real message these institutions communicate with respect to equity.

More specifically the issue contains the following articles:

Article 1. What comes to mind when you think of science? The Perfumery!“: Documenting science-related cultural learning pathways across contexts and timescales

In this article, Bricker follows one youth, Brenda, and her family from the age of 9 until 13, asking the question of how everyday moments, experienced across settings, pursuits, social groups, and time, influence science learning, expertise development, and identification with science. Beginning with Brenda's interest in and enthusiasm for a perfumery kit that allows her to engage in “mixing” things at home, Bricker documents how interest in various aspects of the sciences was years in the making, embedded in situated events that were part of a space-time continuum that required frequent boundary crossing, all bound by passion for the practices she engaged in, influenced by specific cultural practices, and explored with the help of close family collaborators, particularly her mother. Brenda's out of school time activity with her perfumery kit deeply engaged her in scientific practices; she kept notes, labeled perfumes, documented her mixing procedures and even associated this activity with liking chemistry. Bricker uses the Cultural Learning Pathways Framework (Bell, Tzou, Bricker, & Baines, 2012) to track Brenda's pathways across system boundaries, documenting the related sociocultural, historical, material, and affect-laden practices in which she and her family (and classroom) participated. Although there was some evidence that Brenda utilized ideas and practices learned in school science in other contexts (e.g., during vacation or as part of a dog training class), for the most part, her rich sociomaterial practices in science at home were not tapped into in school—except when she was given personal choice in relation to a series of science investigations. This longitudinal study highlights the importance of the support Brenda's mother, Stella, provided, who articulated in interviews how she actively positioned herself, sometimes as a collaborator, and at other times, as a bystander or supportive assistant, providing suggestions, guidance (cf. Henze, 1992); demonstrating the importance of this support Brenda and Stella used the pronoun “we” to describe their Perfumery-related practice. Even in school settings, when Brenda's mother appears, Brenda shows more enthusiasm and engagement. Consistent with its ethnographic approach, Bricker offers a thick description of Brenda's 4-year pathway and the article provides a thorough account of the factors that contribute to her learning of science.

Article 2. Putting on a green carnival: Youth taking educated action on socioscientific issues

Birmingham and Calabrese Barton studied an extended project carried out in an urban after school club that focused on a socioscientific issue about energy consumption in the city. This article reflects the issue's themes of boundary crossing, engaging in science practices in meaningful ways, and the role of learning science in everyday contexts as a mechanism for building and sustaining identification with science. The youth were engaged in investigating a complex, real-world problem—energy consumption and saving. They investigated the issue in many ways: theoretical and practical (hands-on), and they used information from a variety of resources. Not only did they learn about energy production and saving, they summarized their learning process, or more accurately, they arranged the learning process around a culminating event—a “green carnival,” which was an exhibition they constructed for the public, as well as a venue in which discussion about energy occurred. The people engaged were youth, facilitators, parents and community members, all who became part of the expanding learning process. This study elegantly demonstrates the lack of boundaries and definitions within the arena of out-of-school science (as well as the complexities of studying them). There are no boundaries between youth and adults; learning is not limited to specific hours or places—these boundless learning opportunities encourage various forms of leadership which were evident in a few of the groups described in the article. The project was place-based as well, that is, youth learned about their own city, its history, problems and future challenges. This place-based approach resulted in evidence of care and commitment to the city by participating youth. A central idea in this paper is that of providing opportunities for youth to take educated action in science, related to scientific literacy on the one hand and to place and civic engagement on the other. Science understanding and communication become tools for practical and relevant use in identifying and solving problems in everyday contexts. The authors view place as multidimensional and use critical ethnography to study six female youth from low-income and minority backgrounds in a Midwestern city. The researchers attempted to give voice to these youths, in order to genuinely capture and analyze their enthusiasm and engagement.Article 3. Science stories as boundary objects affecting engagement with science

In this article, Polman and Hope focus on five case studies of youth participating in a science journalism project (SciJourn) which positions youth within an ecology of learning opportunities (school, an informal science institution education program, a university and a science newspaper). As the authors indicate, the project attempts to create a hybrid, third space in which youth can engage with science through journalism. Similar to Birmingham and Calabrese Barton, the authors investigate three facets of this project: (1) Actions, the direct involvement of youth in identifying, researching, writing and presenting a chosen science news stories; (2) Interests, youths' openness to and stance toward their involvement in the moment (situational) and across time (persistent); and, (3) Identifications, ways that these actions connect to youth's identity affiliations, in the past, present, and future. The issue of working in the boundary, boundary objects and crossing boundaries is central in this work. Students discuss their assignments with their school teachers, but they choose their own projects for investigation (with the exception of one case). They interact with a professional editor, who mentors and gives them feedback. Although not required, some youth make their own revisions to their work, revealing their sense of ownership in the endeavor. Not all of them are identified as good students at the beginning of the project, but they all develop a high level of expertise, either in the science content, writing or in graphic design, all essential elements of effective science journalism and related to the five science literacy practices that the authors call out as being useful to students 15 years after they graduate from high school. Youth in each of the case studies focus on a topic of specific interest to them: in one case the influence of a rare disease on a member of the family, led one youth to study “orphan diseases,” those that are so rare that the U.S. government does not deem it cost-effective to fund treatments; in another a personal experience with alternative medicine fostered the initial interest, though the youth modified an initial native belief into a more critical stance after the editor's feedback was given; this case also shows the tension of these boundary spaces. Another youth disengaged with the project because the facilitating teacher took an authoritative position and gave students “school-like” tasks that did not express their own interest and inhibited their choice. This study utilized a variety of data sources to provide a clear and coherent account of each case study: field notes of observations, student artifacts in various stages and interviews. Although the researchers were surprised with how health-related issues dominated other science issues, we do not find it surprising, since much research in learning science in everyday contexts shows high public interest in health-related issues and especially more interest in the human body and health for females.

Article 4. Clarifying the complexities of school-museum interactions: Perspectives from two communities

Collaboration between schools and informal science institutions is important and earlier studies have investigated why research in this domain is limited or underdeveloped. Schools, as well as informal science institutions acknowledge the need to collaborate, but barriers exist that limit meaningful collaboration. In this article, Kisiel views informal science institutions and schools as two distinct communities, and the collaboration between them as boundary activity. He studied three informal science institutions in southern California—a science center, botanical garden and an aquarium and teachers who were engaged in the past with at least one of these institutions. In a mixed-method study he collected data in the form of a close-ended survey, open-ended questions and focus group interviews. He applied cross case-analysis (between teachers and informal educators) and found that many issues were highlighted by both teachers and informal educators as indicators for successful activity. In an innovative twist, he also more deeply studies teachers in his sample he refers to as “avid users” of informal science institutions resources to understand what factors may be at play in their ability to effectively engage in boundary crossing. Based on his analysis of these sets of data, Kisiel points to four key factors that influence practice within each of the two distinct communities of practice and the boundary activity in which they engage: capacity, authority, communication and institutional complexity. He then expands beyond the sample of the two communities he described earlier to include other teachers, administrators, and other employees of the informal science institutions. Taking into account interactions between and among these additional actors, allows Kisiel to suggest that these actors and interactions result in their own set of unique factors that can enhance or undermine boundary educational activity. Finally, Kisiel argues that awareness of and understanding of the multiple communities of practice within an informal science institution and a school could promote more meaningful interactions that result in more effective and satisfying educational experiences for students, teachers and informal educators.

Article 5. Equity in museums and science centers

In this article, Feinstein and Meshulam focus on informal science institutions' (ISI) policy and practice with respect to equity. Feinstein and Meshulam studied 15 U.S. ISIs (all science museums and science centers), addressing the above mentioned U.S. NRC report (2009) that suggested that learning science in informal environments (NRC authors also included the home and youth and adult programs) may actually help to enhance science learning, improve attitudes toward science and even provide access to science to a broader, more diverse public than schools typically do. Respectfully, they discuss statistics demonstrating that museums fail in achieving this goal because visitors to ISIs are less diverse than the general public. Bringing the boundary-crossing theme full circle to this last article, Feinstein and Meshulam argue that the challenge of equity is embodied by a gulf that separates a museum's actual public from the more diverse publics that comprise their communities (and society). Taking on this unexplored arena in the hope that findings might help bridge this gulf, they adopt an institutional theory perspective, stating that equity is a field-wide challenge in museums and science centers—a challenge that different organizations define and respond to in different ways. They specifically utilize new institutionalism—a body of theory and research that spans multiple scholarly fields (more boundary crossing) and emerged as a response to behaviorist research in the 1960s and 1970s that attributed social outcomes, including the evolution, success, and failure of organizations, to individual action (March & Olsen, 1984). New institutionalism focuses on the role of organizations, the individual agents within them but constrained by them and the “institutional fields” in which they are imbedded (Koelble, 1995). This body of theory allows Feinstein and Meshulam not only to understand what equity might mean in one institution but also to look across the field through an institutional lens since it draws attention to patterns that span organizations and characterize an entire field. Recently work in this area has focused on tension and change within institutional fields, examining cases in which two or more frameworks appear to guide how organizations in a particular field act (e.g., Lounsbury, 2007). These frameworks, a “package” of values, ideas, and strategies, are called institutional logics (Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). Competing institutional logics lead organizations within a field to act in different ways, even though their goals seem, on the surface, to be quite similar. When competing logics are found within a particular organization (and field) they can cause conflict and disagreement (Thornton et al., 2012). Feinstein and Meshulam analyze interviews with leaders from fifteen museums and science centers to identify two kinds of institutional logic that seem to be at play within the field of science museums and science centers: client and cooperative logics, When an organization was using client logic, staff saw themselves and their colleagues as a coherent “us,” separated by institutional barriers from the less distinct “them” of the surrounding community. On the other hand, when an organization was using cooperative logic, its language and activities emphasized shared ownership of programs, and staff found many ways to blur the lines between the institutional “us” and community “them.” The authors suggest that cooperative logic could help ISI organizations maintain more fluid and dynamic connections with their changing communities, that is, relationships between the ISI and the public would be more bilateral rather than one-directional. They criticize those institutions that view themselves as representatives of science or scientific culture and thus see their role as enculturating visitors to the world of science. Although they discuss the importance of cooperative logic, they also suggest that it will be most productive to ask when, how and under what conditions ISIs can use both client and cooperative logics to respond to equity challenges.

Dr. Jrene Rahm, recognized for her exemplary work in the field of informal science education and leadership in NARST's Informal Science Learning strand and the AERA Informal Learning Environments Research SIG, serves as the discussant for this special issue. She also addresses the expansion of the field into many domains and points to the diverse framing that currently characterizes the field, in particular pointing to the crucial issues about collaboration across institutions and practices that the articles raise. Most importantly, Rahm suggests that this issue paints a new vision of the field, one grounded in a relational logic in which science education is understood as entailing a system of complex interrelations among practices and institutions and multiple ways of engaging and identifying with science. Such engagement with science occurs in different timescales of learning and development and it also is characterized by complex spatial configurations. Finally, Rahm calls for caution in theory and practice and encourages the use of sociocultural theory, cultural historical activity theory and others that could help to further move the field forward, especially in understanding border crossing between cultures and practices.


As guest editors, and an associate editor and editorial board member of JRST, we hope that this special issue fosters continued discussion of the role of learning science in everyday life research, its theoretical and methodological characteristics and its relationship to classroom-based research and research in other fields such as public understanding of science and science in the media (see an upcoming special issue of JRST). Although JRST regularly receives and publishes research papers in this field, a special issue can demonstrate development in the field as well as point to possible future directions. There were two additional articles (Zhai & Dillon; Tal, Lavie-Alon, & Morag) that reflect research focused on fieldtrips and visits to science centers that were not included in this issue. These manuscripts also are important contributions to the discourse on informal science learning, and will be published in an upcoming issues of JRST. We hope that this collection of articles will further encourage researchers and practitioners to collaborate on more complex projects and innovative research to further develop the field and contribute to blurring the boundaries between formal and informal education, various views of learning and diverse social institutions.