Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Science Learning, No Homework Required

People learn most of their science in school. No, really, they do. Where else could they be learning it? We need to make sure they are getting every possible advantage in schools. Our performance on standardized tests is well below that of the rest of the world and that needs to change. If that means less money is spent on learning in informal, “free-choice” settings such as science museums, aquariums and TV shows, so be it. The flying anvils on The Science Channel and the gross yet popular “Bodyworlds” exhbit are fun, but not that educational. And not that many people go anyway. This idea is so ingrained that it is almost heresy to question it. But recent research performed by John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking shows that most people learn their science outside of the classroom.

As someone that does informal education as a profession, this is exciting news. When your basic job description is to “excite and engage the public in physics” it is hard to know what impact you are having. Apparently, those of us doing this type of work are actually helping

The average person spends only 5% of their life in school. A lot of science is learned in that 5%, but by the age of 30, how many people can remember what they learned in freshman biology? Not many according to this article. But, visits to science museums, reading science articles and pop science books and watching the incredibly popular “MythBusters” sticks with adults.

American’s performance on international tests varies greatly with age. Elementary school children perform as well as or better than most students in the world. But, when these students enter adolescence, this relative performance drops significantly and these kids are consistently outperformed by students across the globe. Usually this is where the story ends. But people’s science education does not end when they cross the stage at graduation. When American adult’s science knowledge is tested, their relative scores soar. This means the average American adult understands more science than the average international adult.

Since these adults have long ago left the classroom, many have not had a science class since high school, where are they getting the wealth of science knowledge? Falk and Dierking argue that they are seeking it out in their free time and when they do that, the learn quite a bit. One excellent example comes from the California Science Center. Over 60% of residents have visited the science museum after recent renovations. In a random survey of the LA population only 7% knew the meaning of the term “homeostasis” before the museum renovations. When the new exhibit featuring a 50-foot anatomically correct woman was installed, the ability to correctly define the term has increased 3 fold in the LA area. That is one heck of an impact for one woman to make!

We here at Physics Buzz headquarters have been known to spend time crashing things into each other, but it turns out we may be making a different type of impact as well!

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