Hello, I am Rupu Gupta, Analyst at New Knowledge Organization Ltd. and Co-Chair of AEA’s Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. My evaluation work focuses on learning about the environment and conservation in informal settings. As we celebrate Earth Day, I would like to share some reflections on evaluating these experiences.
Lessons Learned: Informal learning settings are critical to learn about the environment and actions to protect it. Informal learning settings offer opportunities for “free-choice” learning, where the learners choose and control what they learn. They are typically institutions such as zoos, botanic gardens, aquariums, and museums, distinct from formal educational settings like schools. With hundreds of millions of visits to these institutions annually, they are prime settings to engage the public in thinking about the environment. Conservation education is often a key aspect of these institutions’ programming, where visitors can learn about different forms of nature (e.g., animals, natural habitats), threats they face (e.g., climate change), and actions to address them (e.g., reducing energy use). Educational experiences here are often referred to as informal science learning for their connection with understanding natural systems.
Learning about the environment in informal learning settings can happen through a variety of experiences. Informal learning is socially constructed, through a complex process that includes oneself, close others (friends, family) and more distant others (institution staff). Specific experiences, like animal encounters, hands-on interactions with flora in botanic gardens, or media-based elements (e.g., touch screens) enable visitors to engage with information about nature and the environment. Docents play an important role in helping visitors ‘interpret’ the message embedded in the experiences and exhibits. Evaluators assessing the impact of the different experiences in informal settings, need to be mindful of the multiple pathways for visitors to engage with the environmental information.
Informal learning manifests broadly. Learning experiences in informal settings encompass outcomes, beyond learning traditionally associated with school-based education. In the process of making meaning of the various experiences, learning is tied to the multiple aspects of the human experience. They can be cognitive (e.g., gaining knowledge about climate change impacts), attitudinal (e.g., appreciating native landscapes), emotional (e.g., fostering empathy towards animals) or behavioral (e.g., signing a petition for an environmental cause). A mix of qualitative and quantitative methods are best to capture the complex learning experiences. By considering the range of learning possibilities, evaluators can design and conduct effective evaluations to understand how people engage with the multi-faceted topic of the environment.
Rad Resources: The following are great to get acquainted with evaluation in informal learning settings:
- “Free-choice Learning and the Environment“ by John H. Falk, Joe E. Heimlich, and Susan Foutz
- “Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Informal Science Education Projects” edited by Alan J. Friedman
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