Learning does not stop when the school bell rings or when a degree is complete. We continue to learn, through work and experience, by necessity and for personal interest, as long as we live. The United States is rapidly becoming a society of lifelong learners, drawn by countless points of interest along the information highway. One essential resource for continued lifelong learning is the vast network of organizations and media that support the public's burgeoning demand for "free-choice" learning--learning that is often voluntary and guided by a person's needs and interests.
"Such learning is very personal," says John H. Falk, director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, who has been conducting science education research since the mid-1970s. "It isn't that you learn any one thing at any one time." Learning is a complex, ongoing process that changes continuously as you, your needs, and the world around you change. This, in fact, is the whole point of learning. It is an adaptation that allows each of us to function successfully in a changing world.
Learning is also an individual, cumulative experience that is difficult to study and document, adds Lynn D. Dierking, associate director of the institute. In fact, according to Dierking and Falk, "we have framed the questions of what someone has learned entirely incorrectly. Instead of asking 'What did somebody learn by visiting this exhibit, or taking this class, or listening to this lecture,' the appropriate question is, 'How did this experience contribute to what someone knows, feels, or understands?'"
Falk and Dierking illustrate the impact of learning in and from these settings with data from numerous studies the institute has conducted, primarily in free-choice settings where people choose to come to learn--museums, science centers, libraries, aquariums, zoos, botanical gardens, and even television programs, newspapers, and the Internet--as well as in schools and universities. Falk and his colleagues have been conducting research for nearly a decade at the California Science Center in Los Angeles in an attempt to understand, in detail, how a free-choice learning organization like a science center can and does affect public understanding of science. The results from this research confirm that free-choice settings do contribute to the public's understanding of science, but they also highlight how complex the nature of such learning is. For example, one study showed that a multimedia experience significantly improved the public's understanding of the concept of homeostasis for more than 90 percent of adults and 60 percent of children 8 to 10 years old. Learning not only improved on the day of the visit, but it persisted over years. Only by understanding how the science center experience fit into the visitor's larger experience could one understand its impact.
Information and experiences available in all three major learning settings (schools, workplace, and free-choice venues) work synergistically to reinforce and contextualize what is learned, helping to make scientific concepts more accessible. The institute's work, both through research and through development of educational materials for schools, families, and communities, particularly those that traditionally have been underserved, provides examples of how effective this synergism can be. For example, Dierking's Adults Supporting Kids with Science (ASK with Science) project, working through community-based organizations, gets families involved in learning science together. Pilot efforts were very successful, sustaining the interest and participation of families not traditionally involved in learning science together, as well as improving their attitudes toward learning science. The majority of the families were African-American, many of them living in either urban housing projects or rural and less populated communities in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. These families assisted in developing activities to use at home to support their children's science learning, and in the process they learned about and applied the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996). With supplemental funding, prototype materials were translated into Spanish, enabling the project to expand to include additional families in the growing Hispanic population in Maryland.
Both Falk and Dierking feel there are several reasons to be optimistic about scientific literacy in the United States, "if we appreciate that people are specifically literate in topics of importance to them." We learn when we need to know something and when a topic is personally relevant. "America is already a place of lifelong learners," Falk stresses, "and as a society we need to better support efforts for learning, anywhere, any time, across the life span."