How “Science Near Me” Benefits Me — And You

I’m among the estimated 67 million visits to science centers in the U.S. (pre COVID). You probably are, too, if you’re reading a blog on DiscoverMagazine.com! Most American adults are broadly interested in science. In fact, most of our science…

I’m among the estimated 67 million visits to science centers in the U.S. (pre COVID). You probably are, too, if you’re reading a blog on DiscoverMagazine.com! Most American adults are broadly interested in science. In fact, most of our science learning happens in our adult lives through “informal” experiences, including visits to science museums, reading science news magazines and blogs, watching science shows, attending science festivals, engaging in citizen science and more. (Any science experience that takes place out of school — a “formal” setting — is considered an informal science experience. More on that later!)

If you’re like me, you probably thought that science learning only happened in school. It took me a while to realize that some of my hobbies, like nature journaling and taking my little nephew to the zoo, were enriching my understanding of science and nature, inspiring me to be more curious, and moving me into a category I’m proud to be part of: lifelong learners!The things we learn as lifelong learners are pretty incredible. In part because of my interest in lifelong learning, I decided to pursue a career researching and improving informal science learning. Now I explore how the experiences that are so immersive and personally fulfilling to me enrich discovery and learning for others. Remember the time you spent tinkering with equipment this weekend? Or the gardening blog you read to figure out when to plant your broccoli seeds? Or the NOVA show you watched recently? These impromptu experiences are what make up a person’s science learning across a lifetime. Science Near MeAt first glance, the overlap between “science learning” and “things I choose to do in my free time” might not seem obvious. But there are so many opportunities to learn while engaging in fun, interesting, and rewarding activities – it’s just a matter of finding them and, of course, making the time to engage a bit. I can’t help with the latter but to address the former, I joined forces with others to create a new, free, open web resource called Science Near Me.With support from the National Science Foundation, an interdisciplinary team of experts on science engagement, informal science education, web platform design and learning research came together to create ScienceNearMe.org. Science Near Me is a web platform based on and built by citizen science organization SciStarter, that serves as a science engagement buffet: We digitally connect databases and calendars from museums, festivals, and many other partners offering thousands of local and national opportunities. That makes it easier than ever before for you to discover the science experiences best for you based on your interests and location. At the same time, I (and others who research science learning!) get to better understand how and where informal science learning happens. Learning about LearningResearchers like me love to categorize things. We call learning that happens at school “formal learning” since it tends to be highly structured and is, for the most part, not optional. Learning that happens outside of school is called “informal” or “free-choice” learning because it tends to be flexible and voluntary, often done because people enjoy it and have fun doing it. Informal learners might take on a learning hobby intentionally, like getting trained as a citizen scientist. Or learning might be more spontaneous and self-paced like exploring a new exhibit at the local science center [link to Exhibit search] or looking through a telescope at a star party.Science education researchers, like my colleagues and I, are scientists who focus their attention on how people learn. While a fisheries scientist might study how salmon find their way back to spawning grounds, I might study how the fisheries scientist found their way to becoming a salmon expert! Science education researchers want to understand how and in what ways people learn about science — both formal and informal — throughout their lives.We’re also curious about why some people engage with science in informal ways while others don’t, and what benefits they get beyond gaining knowledge. For example, in one study, we had zoo and aquarium visitors wear GoPro cameras during their visit to understand how people connect the experience with their own lives and what they take away with them. In another study, we’re investigating how authenticity impacts science learning. For example, can I learn as much about space rocks from holding a plaster replica of a meteorite versus holding a real chunk of meteorite that fell from space?More recently, researchers have been focusing on how people connect their experiences across time and space. We sometimes refer to the connection between formal and informal science learning opportunities as a “STEM Learning Ecosystem” (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). A STEM Learning Ecosystem is basically all the various opportunities that a person has available to engage with STEM. It includes social networks, places, and spaces specifically designed for STEM engagement, as well as experiences where STEM engagement might be somewhat secondary, like hiking in a forest or watching a science-rich Hollywood movie. Take this example: My nephew watches the kids show Dinosaur Train, then reads a book about dinosaurs. Next he visits the local natural history museum where he talks with a curator about a dinosaur exhibit. On our way home, we talk about dinosaurs and I share a story about finding a fossilized mollusk on the beach. Next summer, we’ll visit a dinosaur dig site on our way to Yellowstone. All of these individual experiences are part of my nephew’s personal journey through the STEM Learning Ecosystem. In recent years, science education researchers have taken new approaches to studying STEM Learning Ecosystems, from mapping the opportunities in a given region to understanding how peoples’ STEM interest grows and changes in both formal and informal settings.“For a long time, skeptics wondered whether there was any value in visiting a science museum or watching a science documentary,” says my colleague Martin Storksdieck, director of the STEM Research Center at Oregon State University. “But when we can trace how people connect these STEM engagements, we can better show their cumulative effect.” Understanding how people participate in the seemingly one-off opportunities that make up a STEM Learning Ecosystem can help educators and community leaders make informed decisions about how to foster new ways to connect learning across a community and over time. But studying the ways in which people engage across the vast STEM Learning Ecosystem is challenging. “People have a hard time connecting their experiences,” Storksdieck explains. “So far it has been next to impossible to simply observe what people do next, that is, how they follow up on one STEM engagement with another one.” ScienceNearMe.org is an ambitious, innovative effort to address this gap show us how people across the country connect everyday science experiences to their lives and show us where there might be “STEM engagement deserts” that need more opportunities to discover science.Science Near Me and Science Near YouScienceNearMe.org provides a platform for people to find opportunities for science learning in their communities and online. But on the other side of that platform, it gives researchers the opportunity to see how people find and participate in informal science and begin to make more sense of how learning accumulates for different people over time.That means as Science Near Me visitors peruse the site, seeking opportunities to engage with science, they’re also contributing to science education research! “The proverbial bread crumbs are now electronic footprints we can use to better understand how people maneuver in their own STEM Learning Ecosystem,” says Joe E. Heimlich, senior director of research at the Center of Science and Industry’s Center for Research and Evaluation in Columbus, Ohio. “People move through life, learning across everything they do,” says Heimlich. “Science Near Me opens a door to all sorts of useful and fascinating questions to explore.” We see a lot of important ways we can help society with this research. Understanding more about the patterns and structures of learning within a community can provide local organizations, policy makers and educators guidance on how to better connect the public with meaningful science. On a more personal level, Science Near Me supports me as an aunt, looking for fun and educational activities for me and my nephew, and in my profession, as a science education researcher. I invite you to nurture your curiosity and find the next step in your learning journey with Science Near Me — and help science education research while you are at it. Now it’s your turn: Go explore ScienceNearMe.org to find what science is near you!Kimberley Preston is a science education researcher at Oregon State University’s STEM Research Center, studying everything from conservation education at zoos and aquariums to polar workforce development. While earning an MS in Environmental Education, she found her passion for understanding how people connect to and learn from nature in outdoor recreation. Her weekend toolkit includes a pair of binoculars, a bird identification guide, hiking boots and a sketchpad.