Paralleling the growing awareness of the importance of lifelong out-of-school science learning, is an exponential expansion in the quantity of science learning research being conducted in these settings. Historically, the field suffered from a paucity of research, often scattered across many disciplines and sub-disciplines, with few efforts to consolidate, situate and synthesize it within an overall framework. However, there is a growing body of research investigating science learning in and from a wide variety of non-school environments, both physical and virtual. Much of this research is still focused exclusively on children, but there is growing awareness that also investigating adult learning is critical to comprehensively understanding lifelong science learning. Several recent U.S.-funded national studies provide a strong foundation for this research (cf., National Research Council, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017), with data coming from studies of physics, chemistry, life science, geosciences and the social sciences, as well as across disciplines.
The collective work on learning in and from museum-like settings represents the most coherent body of this research, but studies also have been conducted in varied contexts including community, health and home settings (cf., Archer et al., 2015; Diaz et al., 2002; NRC, 2009, 2015; Vedder-Weiss, 2016). Investigations in museums often focus on why the public visits science-oriented museums, and what and how these visitors learn from visiting them. The public seems to use these settings to fulfil one of several basic learning needs, such as: a) support their own curiosity and interest in science; b) support the learning needs of others, e.g., children or partners; c) build personal identity, either personally or professionally; d) refresh and rejuvenate themselves; and/or e) satisfy a sense of exploration, a desire to see and do novel things (Falk, 2009, 2018; Phelan, Bauer, & Lewalter, 2018; Sheng & Chen, 2012). These needs often are designed to learn specific science information, but just as frequently the learner’s goals are tangential to specific science learnings.
Research has shown that rather than focusing primarily on what they expect to see or do not know, museum visitors disproportionately are attracted to what they “sort-of-already” know about and find interesting. Although people visit museums to see and learn new things, because of their free-choice nature, most people selectively utilize these settings to build upon, reinforce and strengthen their own preferred, pre-existing science understandings. This does not mean that museums do not regularly support “new” learning. Visitors learn new things, particularly within structured encounters, such as school field-trips (e.g., Behrendt & Franklin, 2014; Renner, 2011).
Research on the impacts of science learning from organized programs, in particular, family-focused efforts, suggests that these programs are extremely effective when integrated with trusted community-based organizations that share a common goal of supporting families, youth and communities (Ellenbogen, Luke, & Dierking, 2007). This is particularly the case in terms of families that do not historically use museums to meet their free-choice learning needs. Research also demonstrates that the quality of interactions with those outside one’s social group, e.g., museum explainers, guides, or even other visitors, influences learning (e.g., Gutwill & Allen, 2010; Pattison, Gutwill, Auster, & Cannady, 2019; Rosenthal & Blankman-Hetrick, 2002).
Another increasingly critical “venue” in which to study free-choice science learning is media, broadly writ (cf., Jamieson, Kahan, & Scheufele, 2017). It has long been assumed that mass media, particularly news, plays an important role in informal learning. Several recent studies have attempted to determine the direct influence of news media on science-related learning (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019; Jamieson et al., 2017; National Science Board, 2019). Collectively, these studies demonstrate that traditional news represents a key source of adult information about science, even though many social scientists, and an increasing number of citizens, question the reliability of the information.
Television stands out as the main source of science information for Americans, Europeans and Asians (e.g., American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018; Huang, 2016; Jamieson et al., 2017; National Science Board, 2019). The Internet is a close second for audiences seeking general science and technology information, and the primary source for those interested in specific science issues (AAAS, 2019; Jamieson et al., 2017; Pew, 2006). These investigations reinforce the generally held assumption that mass media can and does influence learning, although impacts are typically modest and idiosyncratic. The power of new digital media seems to be the agency they afford learners to directly answer personal science questions and/or fulfil curiosities. In this regard, the Internet has revolutionized what, where, how, when, why and with whom the public accesses information. Although initial digital media research disproportionately focused on usability issues, such as navigation, the work is now nuanced and learning-focused. For example, research demonstrates that the Internet is a dominant way that people get answers to health-related issues, with more than a third of all U.S. individuals doing so (Fox & Duggan, 2013).
Arguably the fastest growing area of media-related free-choice science learning research is in the area of digital games, mirroring the growth in popularity of online and personal device video games over the past decade. The number of gamers worldwide has been estimated as approximately a billion individuals (No Author, 2018), and there are no signs of this number decreasing soon. Although the vast majority of games played have little science content, researchers argue that games support a range of science-relevant skills and capabilities, including visual short-term memory (Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani, & Gratton, 2008), spatial cognition (Feng, Spence, & Pratt, 2007) and probabilistic inferences (Green, Pouget, & Bavelier, 2010; see also, NRC, 2011). Meanwhile, some researchers believe that the “gamification” of education has the potential to dramatically change the way science is learned, primarily in school, and have some evidence of the potential of games for science learning (cf., Morris, Croker, Zimmerman, Gill, & Romig, 2013).
Another major body of research has related to public science literacy, which as defined by Kirshenbaum (2009) is the ability of a person to “ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences.” Several recent reviews by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS, 2018, 2019) and National Academies of Science (NRC, 2017) provide an excellent overview of the current state of affairs within the U.S., and recent comparisons between the U.S. and worldwide data suggest similar dynamics are at work (NSB, 2019). As summarized in the NRC report, although science and technology are embedded in virtually every aspect of modern life, and the public seems eager to become informed about science, communicating science effectively turns out to be a highly complex task. A common thread in both of these reports is a growing appreciation that the most widely held, and simplest model of what audiences “need” from science communicators’ perspective, referred to as the “deficit model,” is fundamentally flawed. The most effective approaches depend upon the specific needs, interests, circumstances and prior understandings and beliefs of the audience.
Although individuals may be highly informed about a particular science topic, their beliefs and social networks may mean they act in ways contrary to accepted scientific practice (Drummond & Fischhoff, 2017). For example, this has been found true of individuals who deny such accepted science findings as climate change (e.g., Dunlap & McCright, 2010) and evolution (e.g., MacFadden et al., 2007; National Academy of Sciences, 1999). As a consequence, when justifying their actions, individuals are likely to choose a level of explanation which meets their needs and beliefs, rather than necessarily scientific orthodoxy (cf., Drummond & Fischhoff, 2017). Important to note though, is that ultimately science learning is a natural and common outcome of living within a science-rich world, situated within activities of everyday life (cf. Roth & Calabrese Barton, 2004), and that people typically are eager to learn and act upon those things that directly support their personal needs and well-being (Falk, 2018). From this perspective, each individual in a community is likely to have a different science knowledge repertoire; a level of science understanding determined by his specific needs, abilities, and socio-historical context. These understandings and interests may or may not track with standard academic disciplines, often being much more situated with specific interdisciplinary topic areas such as gardening or rocketry. From this perspective, public understanding of science is not some generalized body of knowledge and skills that every person should have by a certain age, but rather a series of specific sets of only moderately overlapping knowledge and abilities that individuals construct over their lifetime. Thus, individuals possessing comparable science understandings would best be predicted by convergences in life experiences, professions, hobbies and interests, rather than convergences in formal education.
This view of science literacy also supports another growth area in both free-choice science practice and research – variously referred to as citizen or community science (cf., Bonney et al., 2009; Edwards, 2015; Science Europe, 2018); or engaged science learning (cf., McCallie et al., 2008). Often published in interdisciplinary science journals such as Science and Nature as well as disciplinary journals such as and Bioscience, Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment and Journal of Physics, this research documents and describes how, and to what degree, active engagement in scientific practices by non-professional scientists leads to science understanding, interest and identity, with the evidence indicating that by and large, such transformations do occur. The key appears to be the free-choice nature of the experience, the ability for individuals to ask and answer important scientific questions, often revolving around local or regional issues, that they themselves find interesting and worthwhile (cf., Bonney, Cooper, & Ballard, 2016).