Learning and Learning Environments: Research, Design, and Implementation

Learning Scientists header

November 5th, 2014

The Diving Deeper, Looking Forward session topics at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting emerged from a pre-meeting survey of AISL-funded Principal Investigators; discussions with PIs and others who have participated in CAISE convenings over the past two years; and input from CAISE staff, co-PIs, and NSF Program Officers. These sessions were intended to catalyze discussions about cross-sector topics and issues that can continue beyond the meeting and generate new ideas for future projects and collaborations. The following blog post is a summary of questions, issues and ideas expressed by the participants in this session.


The learning sciences—that is, the multidisciplinary study of how people of all ages acquire and create knowledge in different environments—offers new findings and collaborative possibilities for designers of informal STEM experiences and settings. In this session at the 2014 AISL PI Meeting, Keith Sawyer, editor of the forthcoming 2nd edition of the Handbook of the Learning Sciences, provided an introduction to the field and highlighted research areas that may be of special interest to the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) community, then opened the floor for others to weigh in. The participants in the discussion reflected the diverse nature of the AISL portfolio, and included people who design programs and settings for museum, media, and digital environments, people who work within classrooms (K-12 and undergraduate), and learning researchers. From this conversation, a list emerged of exciting “problems of practice” that could be grounds for future collaborations.

What are the “Learning Sciences?”

Keith Sawyer, Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, characterized the learning sciences field as “booming.” Although the field has its roots in cognitive psychology, researchers working in this domain are also interested in social groups and socially situated research. In particular, learning science researchers are interested in both designing and studying environments. In essence, the goals of the learning sciences are to:

  • Understand the cognitive and social processes that result in effective learning
  • Design learning environments to foster deeper and more effective learning
  • Produce models of “learning for understanding” in which learning is scaffolded, collaborative, contextualized, and integrative


The learning sciences orientation favors the design of experiences that are problem-based. An example one such experience is presenting learners with a design challenge (“the problem”) and then having them explore it through inquiry and discussion. Learners must be active and work to find a solution to the problem, and create tangible products that address it. Feedback and reflection are also important throughout the learning process. Some examples of settings where this model can be found are in the Maker movement; science fairs were also an early example of this kind of learning environment.

This is in contrast to the instructionism model, in which knowledge is static and assessment is rooted in how many facts have been acquired by learners. Use of this model for learning tends to limit knowledge transfer to new situations (especially in out of school applications) and the adaptability of knowledge gained is low.

Four Challenges for Learning Environment Design

Sawyer identified four main challenges for designing learning environments, which can complicate research in the learning sciences:

  • Identifying a good problem or design challenge
  • Supporting and guiding active learning
  • Fostering effective collaboration
  • Supporting the creation of shared artifacts and effective critiques


Some of these challenges are areas in which informal STEM learning practitioners—that is, those professionals who are actively designing and facilitating learning experiences—can use and contribute to the research process to answer questions about their own practice.

Where Can Informal STEM Learning Fit Within the Learning Sciences?

After Dr. Sawyer’s presentation, three panelists from the AISL community, along with session participants, discussed areas in which the learning sciences could advance knowledge about informal STEM learning, as well as ways in which informal environments could contribute to the learning sciences as a discipline. The panel included Kevin Crowley (Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Director of UPCLOSE, and CAISE Co-PI), John Falk (Sea Grant Professor of Free Choice Learning at Oregon State University and CAISE Co-PI), and Bronwyn Bevan (Director of the Institute for Research and Learning at the Exploratorium). These panelists identified additional challenges and areas for further consideration, including:

  • Assessment—how can we think about impacts and evaluation strategies that capture the ways in which these experiences are meaningful?
  • Team and relationship building, and meeting the needs of learners
  • Leveraging the wide range of possible engagements that the informal STEM learning field has to offer—from minutes to years, digital and visual, etc.
  • The ecological perspective on learning—that people learn throughout their lives, and that experiences in different settings can impact and influence each other
  • Broadening participation in science—building on experiences that different kinds of learners bring to the table
  • Non-cognitive learning outcomes, such as interest and motivation
  • Building capacity for informal STEM learning professionals, who often work in isolation—how can you connect people facilitating different informal experiences to one another, and to schools?
  • Promoting more learning research on adult learners
  • Building scaffolding and pathway experiences in meaningful ways
  • Reclaiming language—“education” and “learning” often connote images of students in classrooms We have an opportunity to change that
  • Leveraging the existing or emergent interests of learners to unpack science concepts, and training facilitators to do that


Related Resources

These resources and projects were shared during the session.


Special thanks to Karen Knutson for documenting this session.