ISE experiences help adults make informed decisions about new or changing science

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Kris Morrissey 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.


Informal science education is uniquely poised to become an important lever of change among governments, agencies, and individuals (Field and Powell, 2001, Bell 2009). Understanding how informal science learning experiences can help adults make knowledgeable decisions about science issues is a top priority for the research community, government agencies, and private foundations. In this article, research is presented that examines the challenges associated with adult informal science learning using climate change as an example. This is followed by a brief survey of important and successful adult informal science learning research.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

The Example of Climate Change

Climate change is an example where scientists, educators, and agencies have failed to reduce the gap between what scientists know about the issue and how agencies and individuals understand the problem. To address this challenge, the National Research Council’s Committee on America’s Climate Choices has produced a series of publications describing the scientific, social, cultural, methodological, and institutional challenges posed by the changing climate. At the heart of this work lies the fundamental issue of how adults learn science through informal experiences.

Facilitating Climate Change Responses (National Research Council. 2010) examines why fostering the public’s understanding of and response to climate change is so daunting. The research describes a problem that not only demands cognitive attention, but also has social, cultural, and economic dimensions that require a multi-disciplinary approach to informal learning.

Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate (National Research Council, 2009) and Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change (National Research Council, 2010) are reports that describe the formidable task of fostering informal science learning on a national scale. The reports describe a participatory engagement model guided by scientific expertise as an effective informal learning strategy for adults. The report goes on to recommend that Federal agencies make use of the knowledge base in the social sciences (including informal science learning) to develop effective and innovative ways to improve both institutional and individual understanding of climate change.

Informal Science Education and Adult Learning

For many adults, experiences with informal learning institutions may be their only exposure to continuing education in science (NSTA 1999). Outside evaluations provide a measure of quality to the work of ISE researchers. The following reports use mixed methodologies and a variety of measures to report impacts upon target adult audiences. Knight Williams Inc. (2010a) examines the impact of documentary Cracking the Maya Code upon adult viewers who consistently claimed that they learned a “considerable amount” (p. 36) from watching the film. Knight Williams Inc. (2010b) also did a similar analysis of a documentary of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and found that viewers reported learning “specific facts relating to the history and properties of the four major plants featured in the program” (p. 28). In addition, the film led to an increase in adult awareness about the importance of biodiversity and genetic diversity.

McNamara (2005) used a smaller mixed methodology to study a museum exhibit on aging. The report notes that the exhibit had a discernable impact upon adults’ perception of the aging process, though it seemed to have a greater effect upon children. Korn (2003) and Korn (2006)examine the impact of an aquarium and a science museum exhibit respectively. In both cases, Korn concludes that while a single visit may support development or revision of a visitor’s knowledge, little or no positive change in understanding was the norm.

The Role of Motivation in Adult Informal Science Learning

The following research supports the assertion that adult learning is correlated with individual interests and motivation. Miller et al. (2006) document adult learning as demonstrated by story recall and information retention about science and health stories on local television newscasts.Falk and Storksdieck (2005) investigate a science center exhibit and conclude that one third of adult visitors demonstrated increased understanding of scientific content. Adult learning was dependent upon prior levels of understanding and attitudes. Dickerson et al. (2004) found that a medical crisis was a strong motivator for adult free choice learning on the internet.

The Range of Adult Learning Outcomes

In addition to scientific content learning, emotional and attitudinal outcomes are valued in ISE. The NRC consensus volume Learning Science in Informal Environments highlights six strands of science learning that occur in settings out of school such as ISE, such as excitement, interest, reflection on science as a way of knowing, and identity development in relation to science. For example, Falk, Storksdieck, and Dierking, (2007)found, though a random phone sample, that high anticipation to participate enhances and strengthen outcomes for adult visitors in ISE. Both Clipman (2005) and Myers et al. (2004) measure the emotional impacts of museum exhibits upon adult visitors. Myers et al. found that visitors emotionally respond in a variety of ways and that their response is dependent not on visitor demographics, but on their experience with the animals. Additionally, Marsick et al. (1999) supports the assertion that adult learning in informal settings is highly contextualized.

Demonstrating Evidence for Adult Learning

A wide range of methodologies are used to assess ISE impacts upon adult audiences represent a wide array. As the Learning Science in Informal Environments report states: “The very premise of engaging learners in activities largely for the purposes of promoting future learning experience beyond the immediate environment runs counter to the prevalent model of assessing learning on the basis of a well-defined educational treatment” (p 56). Schwartz and Noam (2007) get more specific about this issue when they say: “While it is often necessary for policy and funding to demonstrate clear effect sizes and conduct strict cost-benefit analyses, qualitative data is often better suited to analyzing the deeper layers of science learning taking place in programs” (p.2). See Brody et al. (2007) for a critical review of the methodologies involved with the assessment and evaluation of programs dedicated to identifying and measuring learning outcomes from informal science learning. The following sample of research explores the various methodologies used to assess a range of ISE impacts on adult audiences.

Rennie and Johnston (2004) present a model for research that engages three characteristics: that learning is personal, that learning is contextualized, and that learning takes time. Meisner et al. (2007) and Stevens (2007) both used video annotation to examine learning outcomes in an informal setting. Crowley and Jacobs (2002) used a form of text analysis to code and examine transcripts of museum visitor conversations. Rogoff (2003) utilized an ethnographic approach to investigate the role of culture in how individuals learn in informal settings. Randol (2005) applied an observational protocol to assess visitor inquiry experiences at science exhibits. Anderson and Shimizu (2007) looked at long term impacts of families visiting science exhibits by comparing interviews done immediately after and several weeks later. Allen (2004) provides a first person account describing the inherent challenges associated with exhibit design that both entertains, engages, and promotes visitor free choice learning. Allen also asserts that pre-post assessments are more meaningful when the treatment is more long term than a single visit to an ISE institution.


Allen, S. (2004). Designs for learning: Studying science museum exhibits that do more than entertain. Science Education, 88(Suppl. 1), S17-S33. Retrieved from

Anderson, D., and Shimizu, H. (2007). Factors shaping vividness of memory episodes: Visitors’ long-term memories of the 1970 Japan world exposition. Memory, 15(2), 177-191. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Bell, L. (2009). Engaging the Public in Public Policy. Museums & Social Issues, 4(1), 21-36

Brody, M., Bangert, A., & Dillon, J. (2007). Assessing learning in informal science contexts. (Commissioned Paper). Washington, DC: National Research Council.Accessed December 5, 2011 at

Clipman, J.M. (2005). Development of the museum affect scale and visit inspiration checklist. Paper presented at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Visitor Studies Association, Philadelphia.

Crowley, K., and Jacobs, M. (2002). Islands of expertise and the development of family scientific literacy. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums (pp. 333-356). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Dickerson, S., Reinhart, A.M., Feeley, T.H., Bidani, R., Rich, E., Garg, V.K., and Hershey, C.O. (2004). Patient Internet use for health information at three urban primary care clinics. Journal of American Medical Information Association, 11, 499-504.

Falk, J.H., Randol, S. & Dierking, L.D. (2008). The informal science education landscape: A preliminary investigation.Washington, D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.Retrieved December 5, 2011 from

Falk, J.H. & Storksdieck, M. (2005). Using the Contextual Model of Learning to understand visitor learning from a science center exhibition. Science Education, 89, 744-778.  Retrieved from

Falk, J.H., Storksdieck, M.& Dierking, L.D. (2007). Investigating public science interest and understanding: Evidence for the importance of free-choice learning. Public Understanding of Science, 16(4),455-469.

Field, H. and Powell, P. (2001). Public understanding of science versus public understanding of research. Public Understanding of Science, 10: 421-426. Gammon, B. & Kell, E. (2007). The impact of science & discovery centres: a review of worldwide studies. London, ECSITE UK. 21 pp. Retrieved April 9, 2013 at

Knight Williams Inc. (2010a). Cracking the Maya Code Summative Evaluation Report Prepared for Night Fire Films. Retrieved December 5, 2011 from

Knight Williams Inc. (2010b). The Botany of Desire Summative Evaluation Report. Prepared for Kikim Media. Retrieved December 5, 2011 from

Korn, R. (2003). Summative evaluation of “vanishing wildlife.” Monterey, CA: Monterey Bay Aquarium. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Korn, R. (2006). Summative evaluation for “search for life.” Queens: New York Hall of Science. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Marsick, V. J., Volpe, M. and Watkins, K. E.. (1999) Theory and Practice of Informal Learning in the Knowledge Era. Advances in developing human resources, 1, 80-95. Retrieved from

McNamara, P. (2005). Amazing feats of aging: A summative evaluation report. Portland: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Retrieved from,_A_Summative_Evaluation_Report

Meisner, R., vom Lehn, D., Heath, C., Burch, A., Gammon, B., and Reisman, M. (2007).

Exhibiting performance: Co-participation in science centres and museums. International Journal of Science Education, 29(12), 1531-1555.  Retrieved from

Miller, J.D., Augenbraun, E., Schulhof, J., & Kimmel, L.G. (2006). Adult science learning from local television newscasts. Science Communication, 28(2), 216-243. Retrieved from

Myers, G., Saunders, C.D., and Birjulin, A.A. (2004). Emotional dimensions of watching zoo animals: An experience sampling study building on insights from psychology. Curator, 47, 299-321. Retrieved from

National Research Council. (2009). Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. Philip Bell, Bruce Lewenstein, Andrew W. Shouse, and Michael A. Feder, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from

National Research Council. (2009a). Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate. Panel on Strategies and Methods for Climate-Related Decision Support, Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 200p. Retrieved from

National Research Council. (2010). Facilitating climate change responses : A Report of two workshops insights from the social and behavioral sciences. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 174p. Retrieved from

National Research Council. (2010a). America’s Climate Choices: Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change. Panel on Informing Effective Decisions and Actions Related to Climate Change. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 345p. Retrieved from

National Science Foundation (2003). Informal Science Education (ISE) Program Solicitation NSF 03-511, Accessed December 5, 2011 from

National Science Teachers Association. (1999). NSTA Position Statement:Informal Science Education.

Randol, S.M. (2005). The nature of inquiry in science centers: Describing and assessing inquiry at exhibits. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Rennie, L., & Johnston, D. J. (2004). The nature of learning and its implications for research on learning from museums.Science Education, 88, S4-S16. Retrieved from

Rockman, S., Bass, K., & Borse, J. (2007). Media-based learning science in informal environments. Commissioned paper for Learning Science in Informal Environments Committee, National Research Council, National Academy of Science. Retrieved from

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York: Oxford University Press. Accessed April 9th, 2013 from;=false

Schwartz, S. & Noam, G. (2007). Informal science learning in afterschool settings: An ideal fit? Commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences. Assessed December 5, 2011 from

Stevens, R. (2007). Capturing ideas in digital things: the traces digital annotation medium. In R. Goldman, B. Barron, and R. Pea (Eds.), Video research in the learning sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See