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The dimensions and impact of informal science learning …-importance of informal learning

The dimensions and impact of informal science learning
experiences on middle schoolers' attitudes and abilities in
Pei-Yi Lina and Christian D. Schunnb
aDepartment of Education, National Chengchi University, Taipei City, Taiwan; bLearning Research and
Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Learners encounter science in a wide variety of contexts beyond the Received 5 July 2016
science classroom which collectively could be quite influential on Accepted 18 October 2016
student attitudes and abilities. But relatively little is known about
the relative influence of different forms of informal science KEYWORDS
experiences, especially for the kinds of experiences that students Informal science learning;
typically access. We conduct factor and regression analyses on engagement; middle school
data collected from a large number of diverse public-school
attending 6th and 8th graders drawn from two regions in the
USA. Students completed a science reasoning measure and
surveys of attitudes, previously completed informal science
learning experiences, and demographic factors. Factor analyses
identify four dimensions of informal science learning participation
(in home, semiformal, nature, and museums). Regression analyses
find a relative specificity of effects, with particular outcomes
associated with a subset of the forms of informal science
participation, highlighting the importance of controlling for
correlated factors. There were also a few differences by grade
level, with different experiences influencing the development of
competency beliefs in science in early vs. late middle schoolers.
1. Introduction
Science learning is a cumulative process taking place both in and out of school (Duschl,
Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007). Therefore, it is important to understand the effects of
both formal and informal science learning, especially in cases where one influences the
other. Historically, there has been a focus in research on science education in formal
science learning in schools. But increasingly research has expanded to informal science
learning experiences and their effects on students' science learning. Furthermore, informal
science learning experiences may influence the development of science interest and motiv-
ation to learn science more broadly. Indeed, early informal science learning experiences
have been highlighted in analyses of why students made science-related curriculum and
career choices (Fortus & Vedder-Weiss, 2014; Kong, Dabney, & Tai, 2014; Maltese &
Tai, 2011; Simpkins, Davis-Kean, & Eccles, 2006). Researchers have argued that informal
CONTACT Pei-Yi Lin hanapeiyi@gmail.com Department of Education, National Chengchi University NO.64, Sec.2,
ZhiNan Rd., Wenshan District, Taipei City 11605, Taiwan
? 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
science learning experiences such as doing science activities at home or going to out-of-
school programmes/clubs, visiting a science museum, and playing in nature are essential
to advance students' science abilities and attitudes (Dabney et al., 2012; Henriksen, Jensen
& Sjaastad, 2015; Knox, Moynihan, & Markowitz, 2003; Markowitz, 2004; Paris, Yambor,
& Packard, 1998). We follow-up on this research to examine which kinds of commonly
occurring informal science learning experiences have effects on students' science abilities
and attitudes.
2. Literature review
2.1. Defining informal science learning
Students can learn science in either formal or informal ways. Formal science learning is
usually defined as learning science in a school context, while informal science learning
usually refers to students' learning experiences in various out-of-school contexts such as
museums, out-of-school or after-school clubs or programmes, science camps, and
various media (Hofstein & Rosenfeld, 1996; Ramey-Gassert & Walberg, 1994). Informal
science learning has also been connected to other labels such as free-choice or outdoor
education, with a common emphasis on such activities as being more self-directed,
rather than strongly facilitated by parents or teachers. The US National Research Council's
consensus report, Learning science in informal environments: People, places and pursuits
(Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, & Feder, 2009), argued that informal learning practices are criti-
cal for students to learn about the natural world and develop important skills for science
learning. They noted that science-designed spaces such as museums, science centres, zoos,
aquariums, and environmental centres can provide rich sources of science learning experi-
ences more closely related to the real world that are commonly found in school learning
experiences. Scientific camps and after-school programmes were described as venues that
can invoke students' passion in science, and build interests for science-related career
choices. Furthermore, various media sources such as the Internet, television, and maga-
zines were noted as offering science information to very broad audiences. In sum, different
learning contexts have been identified as part of informal science learning, and these
different contexts may have different affordances for learners. We investigate different
possible domains of effects of informal science learning experiences.
2.2. Domains to be influenced by informal science experiences
In the next sections, we consider the various domains that might change through informal
science experiences (i.e. scientific reasoning ability and attitudes towards science).
2.2.1. Scientific sense-making
Scientific reasoning ability has been framed in various ways in the literature, ranging from
a logical framework to a way of modelling the world (Lehrer, Schauble, & Petrosino, 2001).
More generally, it can be thought of as a sense-making process which enables learners to
interact with various information sources to extract useful knowledge (Bathgate, Crowell,
Schunn, Cannady, & Dorph, 2015; Warren, Ballenger, Ogonowski, Rosebery, & Hudi-
court-Barnes, 2001). Such a conception is consistent with science learning in diverse
formal and informal contexts, both as what habits of mind students might acquire from
informal learning and how students may productively learn science knowledge from infor-
mal and formal sources. Scientific sense-making involves cognitive actions such as being
able to interpret common data representations, focusing on mechanisms underlying
empirical relationships, considering alternative explanations, and using evidence to
select among explanations, which are aligned with the practices of science. As such, it
can serve as a critical starting point for developing more scientific ways of thinking, enga-
ging in an adaptive process to progressively reconstruct experiences and ideas (Savolainen,
1993), and to connect experiments, arguments, and representations in science (Lehrer
et al., 2001). Through scientific sense-making, students practice and express beliefs,
moving along a trajectory of epistemological development towards sophisticated views
of professional science, thereby positioning students to engage in increasingly more
complex science learning (Sandoval, 2005).
2.2.2. Science interest
Science interest (also called intrinsic motivation) refers to both emotions and cognitions
inherently evoked by science content, which then serve as drivers of engagement and
content mastery goals during learning (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Researchers focused
on curiosity to learn science have found that students who were exposed to an environ-
ment that emphasises student-directed learning became curious and wanted to know
more about science by discovering and exploring the world themselves (Paris et al.,
1998). Greater exposure to science activities can increase interest in science (Sheridan,
Szczepankiewicz, Mekelburg, & Schwabel, 2011; Stake & Mares, 2005; Zoldosova &
Prokop, 2006), and thereby help to gain mastery in science (Knox et al., 2003).
2.2.3. Valuing science for self and society
In addition to being motivated by science content itself, students can also be motivated by
the indirect benefits of having science knowledge and skills (i.e. it can serve as an extrinsic
motivator). Specifically, students who value science knowledge and skills (either for its
contribution to society or its contribution to the student's own goals) are more motivated
to positively engage during science learning in and out of school (Paris et al., 1998) and
enrol in more science courses and informal science-enhancement programmes, which
increase their science knowledge (Stake & Mares, 2005). Moreover, valuing science is
also associated with pursuing it as a possible career (Knox et al., 2003; Markowitz,
2004; Simpkins et al., 2006; Tai, Liu, Maltese, & Fan, 2006). Participation in informal
learning activities that highlight the purposes/effects of science may improve the perceived
value of science (Kong et al., 2014).
2.2.4. Science competency beliefs
Students hold beliefs about whether they are capable of completing or successfully parti-
cipating in science-related activities, which we call science competency beliefs (Deci and
Ryan, 2008), but are sometimes also called science self-efficacy beliefs (Bandura, 1993;
Meece, Wigfield, & Eccles, 1990). These competency beliefs are not necessarily well
aligned with their actual abilities and it is the beliefs, rather than the actual abilities,
which drive decisions to participate in science (Simpkins et al., 2006). In general, compe-
tency beliefs are an important predictor of many types of achievement behaviours,

What are some examples of informal learning? Types of informal learning Self-directed learning This informal type of learning takes place without the help of an educator but sometimes includes a resource person as a helper. ... Incidental learning This type of learning occurs when the learner does not have any intention of learning from a specific experience but still, the learning takes place. ... Socialization learning


Title: The dimensions and impact of informal science learning experiences on middle schoolers' attitudes and abilities in science
Subject: International Journal of Science Education, 2016. doi:10.1080/09500693.2016.1251631
Author: Pei-Yi Lin
Creator: Arbortext Advanced Print Publisher 10.0.1465/W Unicode
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