At the same time that we, as a nation, need to be at our most scientifically conversant, the time for formal scientific education in public schools is shrinking. The answer does not lie in attempting to force more out of the school day, but in taking advantage of opportunities outside formal education. Hundreds of studies currently exist documenting that learning does take place in science centers and museums, and it can take many forms. It can be increased understanding of a specific subject, acquisition of interest in a broad topic, or simply the kindling of a spark of curiosity (Friedman, 2003).
Informal learning institutions, such as science centers, “allow visitors to look at science and technology without the formal prerequisites that are intimidating to so many” (Lewenstein, 2003). Informal learning institutions often allow visitors to look at subjects in a different manner than they would in the classroom, and at their own pace.
Science center exhibits need not be taken in any specific order, allowing visitors to choose their own experience. Within that choice lies the thrill of discovery when visitors wander among the exhibits and come across something they think is really neat. You can see this happen when a visitor calls others over to show off their find, to share their excitement. Although they may not fully grasp the exact scientific concept “their” exhibit is intended to illustrate, they have “claimed ownership over something scientific” (Friedman, 2003). This joy of discovery and pride of ownership is so important in education.
As Alan Friedman, founder of the New York Hall of Science, notes, “what we learn on our own, and can think of as our own personal discovery, often has the most lasting effect” (Friedman, 2003). Correspondingly, studies have shown that informal learning institutions such as museums “often started people on a continuing learning path by helping them become confident and successful learners” (McGivney, 1999).