American learn most of their science outside of school, argue John Falk and Lynn Dierking in a recent article in The American Scientist. Drawing on a number of lines of evidence, they argue that in thinking about science literacy, we foolishly ignore the impact of free-choice, informal learning.
They point out that while American elementary students perform well in tests of science knowledge compared to students from other countries, more schooling does not sustain that knowledge. By middle school, our students' knowledge looks mediocre, and by high school our students trail most of the world. Why, then, do American adults show better knowledge of basic science facts and concepts than adults in other places, including Western Europe, South Korea, and Japan? Since only about thirty percent of college students study science, and half the population doesn't attend college, it's clear that some important science learning is happening after most formal schooling in science has finished.
Falk and Dierking go on to make the case that what happens is informal, free-choice science. Adults take their kids to science museums, zoos, and nature centers. They garden, raise ornamental fish, or watch birds. Americans use public libraries, zoos and aquaria, natural history museums, and science museums more than do adults in other developed countries. American adults watch nature shows and Mythbusters, listen to Science Friday, search the Internet to understand their parents' medical symptoms, and read books about scientific topics or inventors that interest them. Some of them become amateur astronomers or build model rockets.
Preschool and elementary children, too, benefit from the riches of our out-of-school science learning environment. One interesting feature of science museums is how young many of the children in attendance appear to be. It's young children that parents bring to museums; by middle and high school, kids are too busy with sports, schoolwork, and friends to be traipsing off to the zoo with their parents. Shouldn't we take note that it's during this period, when school is their primary or even sole source of scientific information, that American students begin to lag their international peers?
To support science literacy, Falk and Dierking argue, we should avoid the error of assuming that science is learned only in school. We should continue to support the rich web of informal learning environments that pique the interest of citizens even when school is closed or finished. And that's one of the reasons the Noyce Foundation, in hopes of supporting a scientifically literate citizenry, continues to invest in informal and out-of-school science.