Culturally Relevant Experiences in Informal Science Education Institutions

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Meixi Ng, Patricia Montano and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date. 


What do we mean by culturally relevant experiences? And the use of the concept and its relevance to informal STEM education institutions? To understand the concept, one must first look at the literature from formal education, and to sociology research for definitions of culture. Gloria Ladson-Billings, in a special issue of Theory Into Practice titled “Culturally Relevant Teaching,” provides the reader with a background on the links between culture and learning in school, and a “theoretical grounding of culturally relevant teaching” from her research on African-American students in classroom settings and her own experiences (Landson-Billings, 1995). Culture, as a concept studied by sociologists, anthropologists,and psychologists, has multiple definitions that are highly debated; what can be agreed upon is that culture permeates every part of our lives, and we carry culture with us from our homes and communities to places of learning, including museums and other informal STEM education settings. 

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

The Centrality of Culture to Learning

Learning is a cultural process (Erickson, 2002; Lee, Spencer & Harpalani, 2003; Rogoff, 2003; Nasir, Rosebery, Warren & Lee, 2006). However concepts of “culture” is highly debated and there has been no agreement on a single definition of it. A broad ranging study found more than 250 different uses of the word “culture” (Kroeber & Kluckohn, 1952) and there still is no resolution today (Kuper, 2009). However, culture still permeates the everyday tools and practices of being human and is a critical construct to think about in informal science education.

Culture can be thought of as a social construction (Erickson, 2003). As individuals participate in its construction in changing ways, the sociocultural activities of their communities change, as do they. (Erickson, 2003; Rogoff, 2003). The design of learning spaces thus must take into account the centrality of culture and diverse ways of meaning-making so that the learning of science is a more transformative experience, and allows for the generation of more forms of knowing and understanding science in the world (Bang, Warren, Rosebery & Medin, 2012).

The U.S. National Science Education Standards advocate science literacy for all learners (National Research Council, 1996), which can lead some to perceive those who might not be literate in English and science as having a deficit. In communities with individuals at different points on a spectrum with respect to learning English, they can often be seen as problems to be solved (Gutiérrez & Orellana, 2006; Rosebery et al, 2010; Erickson, 2003). This only serves to “reinforce deficit-oriented, uncomplicated, and uneven narratives about students” (Gutiérrez & Orellana, 2006, p.503). Diversity is located in the “other” and non-dominant communities are essentialized to a specific group trait, usually linked with deficits in learning (Nasir et al, 2006; Erickson, 2003; Rosebery, Ogonowski, Dishino & Warren, 2010).

In science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, we are continually bound to operate at normative descriptions of these fields (Bang et al, 2012). Bang et al (2012) argue that we must “desettle expections” and imagine multiple epistemologies and ways of making meaning in the informal and formal science environments in order to create learning environments that are truly culturally relevant and inclusive for non-dominant populations.

Culture permeates every part of our lives is central to learning (Rosebery et al, 2010; Lee, 2008). Some studies in culture in learning science in informal spaces include Fifth Dimension spaces (Cole, 2005), after-school making and tinkering spaces (Vossoughi, et al, 2013), third spaces (Moje et al, 2004; Guitérrez, Baquedano-López & Alvarez, 2001), camps (Wheaton & Ask, 2008), museums (hyperlink to “Making cultural connections in Museums), and at home (Brice Health, 1982).

Humans are cultural agents and are members of a variety of cultural communities which are based on shared routine practices transmitted through generations (Lee, 2008; Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003; Rogoff, 2003). Even when people move from one social context to another, they bring those ways of knowing and being with them into that new space. Gutiérrez et al (2001) has proposed the concept of hybridity as a fundamental to creating meaningful learning experiences for learning. Rosebery et al (2010) also argue that heterogeneity are fundamental to learning so that every student can tap into their heterogenous ways of knowing and talking as resources for understanding scientific ideas in a variety of learning spaces.

Informal science learning institutions such as museums and zoos are especially critical for these diverse learners (National Science Teachers Association 1998) as locations that allow for different approaches to learning. Further, they are well positioned to provide access to real-world science and phenomena (Watson and Houtz, 2002) which is one of the most effective ways to connect with students who are culturally and linguistically diverse. Although informal science education institutions are potentially effective learning sites for more culturally-relevant experiences, there is evidence that they are less visited by culturally and linguistically diverse families (i.e. Melber, 2007; Falk, 1993). Reasons cited range from fiscal barriers such as admission fees to psychological barriers such feelings of inadequacy or the lack of a welcoming feeling.

Making Cultural Connections in Museums

Several strategies have been found to be helpful in moving past these barriers and creating culturally relevant experiences within science museums. Familiarity can increase comfort with these institutions (Melber 2007), so working to build awareness of museum resources and programs among diverse groups can have a positive impact. Not surprisingly, Ash and Wheaton (2008) found that bilingual instruction was important in building connections between museum programs, school, and home. Stein, Garibay, & Wilson (2008) recommend the importance of addressing language concerns and perceptions of learning, and also encourage reflection on the cultural values of these communities. Cultural values can impact the choice to enroll or not enroll a child in a museum program (Simpson & Parsons 2009). Once enrolled, cultural differences can affect how learners related to the subject matter. For example, the role of animals in society varies greatly globally (Bexell et. al, 2007). For individuals who may be new to the country, or come from less urbanized areas, the novelty of visiting a museum or zoo can also impact the experience in a negative manner without proper planning. Tying to earlier research on reducing the ‘novelty effect’ (i.e. Kubota & Ostad, 1991) can be helpful when engaging learners with little science museum experience.
Connecting with the science learning literature regardless of context can provide further insight. Ladson-Billings (1995) addresses the importance of helping learners retain their own cultural integrity. Patchin and Cox-Petersen (2008) build from this and advocate providing opportunities for students to guide their own learning in a safe and encouraging community. Direct access to collections and opportunity to participate in authentic activities aligns with the work Watson & Houtz (2002) and emphasis on real-world experiences.

Directions for Future Research 

  • Making Cultural Connections in Libraries
  • Making Cultural Connections in After-school settings
  • Third spaces
  • Fifth dimension spaces
  • Culture in Making and Tinkering spaces
  • Making Cultural Connections in Camps
  • Making Cultural Connections in Community centers
  • Funds of knowledge in informal science learning
  • Epistemologies and converging knowledge systems in informal science learning


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