Hopes that museums, hobbies, events and other informal settings are a good way of boosting scientific understanding are not just wishful thinking, according to a new report.
Researchers say they have now demonstrated that such approaches play a crucial role in science learning and can sustain long-term interest in the subject.
The Committee on Science Learning in Informal Environments found "abundant evidence" that individuals of all ages learn science across a variety of venues including programmes, designed settings and everyday experiences.
Their report, a synthesis of hundreds of pre-existing studies, considered both the places where science learning occurs and phenomena that cut across all informal learning environments, such as the media.
They found that everyday experiences lie at the heart of science learning — for example there is strong evidence that educational television is influential.
Designed settings, including museums and science centres, can also play a key role as well as programmes for science learning built into schools and science organisations.
Based on their findings, they present six "strands of science learning" — such as becoming excited about a subject or finding out how scientists do their work — that reveal how people learn in informal environments.
The study was carried out in the United States, but Philip Bell, co-author and an associate professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, said its findings could be applied universally.
"Although we weren't able to look at different parts of the world, I do think we've made some good progress trying to look at how people learn both cognitively and culturally.
"I would love to see developing countries use the results of our report as a template to build on and adapt to their own needs, and I would love to see experts from within the developing nation context stare at what we come up with and say how it does and does not seem to fit their local context."
Julie Cleverdon, director of the MTN ScienCentre in Cape Town, South Africa, welcomed the report, saying that previous studies tended to measure the impact of formal and informal environments in similar ways "and it just doesn't work that way".
Julia Tagüeña, a science communicator and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the report highlighted how informal science learning should focus on scientific problems and ideas that are relevant to the community.
"This is exactly what we are talking about with 'glocal', the idea of having scientific problems and ideas which mean something for the community members" (see 'Glocal' approach makes global knowledge local).
"You have to respect local differences while teaching global science. Here in Latin America we are reaching the same conclusions [as the report]."
Maria Elizabeth Fassa, a researcher at the Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil, told SciDev.Net, "I think that the report is universal. Cultural influence is very important but the basic learning process is the same. The recommendations that they present are suitable for every place."
An accompanying practitioner volume will be available later this year.