Where STEM Takes Place: The Learning Landscape

In this post, we examine different forms of STEM learning and the sometimes unexpected places where we encounter these concepts.

Maybe you remember planting vegetables in your backyard when you were little or looking for ladybugs or watching birds pluck seed from a feeder or watching your goldfish swim. Maybe you had questions about how roots and seeds grow into food or how to differentiate between a bee and a wasp. Maybe you tried to count the stars in the sky or wondered how those 90s computer games you loved playing so much were made. Maybe you still do some of these activities now with your own family. Each time you did, or still do, you were taking advantage of one of the many opportunities for encountering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) concepts in daily life that make up what we refer to as the STEM learning ecology. One of the aims of the WZAM initiative is to try to understand how and where people naturally engage in STEM learning, where zoos and aquariums fit in, and the implications for equipping the public with STEM information and learning experiences.

By using the word “ecology” we are trying to evoke the notion of connectedness and interaction among individuals and their experiences with the natural and physical systems in which they are situated . It moves us beyond thinking about the typical learning environments to include settings that offer their own form of STEM education and learning even though they don’t explicitly reference its component pillars by name. In this ecology, it is easy to think about the STEM learning that occurs in schools, after-school programs, science centers as well as zoos and aquariums; but we can also think about learning that occurs at home or on the playground. We can even think about opportunities for learning about STEM in places with entirely unrelated purposes such as in grocery stores or restaurants or financial institutions.

We can categorize the kinds of STEM learning that take place in these environments in a couple of different ways. For the purposes of this blog post, we will consider just two. Formal learning, as the name implies, refers to the structured, intentional learning that occurs in places such as schools and after-school programs. The next category, informal learning, describes opportunities for learning offered in semi-structured settings such as zoos and aquariums (Z/As), natural history museums, and botanical gardens but it also includes the kinds of learning that occur in completely non-structured settings such as in back- and front-yards.

STEM education in informal settings tends to be interactive and self-directed, and avoids the pressures that accompany more rigid curriculum-based academic learning environments. Most of us can remember visiting a local zoo or aquarium and our excitement at seeing wildlife for the first time. Or going to a botanical garden for a first look at a Venus flytrap or a workshop on caring for orchids. Learning is often not the primary motivation for participating in these kinds of activities but choosing to visit these spaces suggests some level of initial interest in STEM and a desire to cultivate it. So, typically people go to the zoo for fun and to spend quality time with family and/or friends. But they may also learn new scientific facts and or be encouraged to take on more active roles such as becoming a volunteer.

Moreover learning experiences in one setting may be the impetus for participating in activities that are characteristic of other kinds of learning. For example, having a pet goldfish at home or watching a documentary about coral reefs could spark a child’s interest in marine ecosystems and the aquatic life they sustain resulting in a visit to the local aquarium. Conversely, learning about plant life at the botanical garden may continue in the backyard at home with a hunt for different kinds of mushrooms. Similarly discussions in biology class may be supplemented by visits to zoos and aquariums for more direct observation. By harnessing the learning contributions of these different settings to the overall ecology, we can help individuals become more knowledgeable about the various aspects of each STEM discipline. This is precisely the goal of the WZAM3 study, which focuses on how the US public perceives zoos and aquariums as contexts for STEM learning. Currently, we are wrapping up a nationwide study of the STEM Learning Ecology and the role Z/As play in it. We will share details of our findings in upcoming posts.

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