The investigators will collect data on a broad range of informal science education activities of an existing sample of approximately 3,500 adults across the U.S. It will relate these activities to prior forms of science involvement and to various indicators of lifelong STEM learning.

The proposed work is an extension of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY), a study funded by NSF since 1986 and still ongoing. Prior work has tracked two national cohorts of students who were originally representative of public middle and high schools, focusing on their science and mathematics course enrollment, content, achievement, and career choices, and informed by data from their parents and teachers. The project team has maintained very high levels of continued participation by the approximately 5,000 students, now aged 34-38, many of whom have families of their own.

The project will extend the planned surveys for 2009 and 2010 to examine how these adults use informal science education resources such as museums, libraries, books, magazines, newspapers, television, and the Internet. The project will provide baseline data on informal science education resource use in the Internet era for a large and diverse sample. It will allow investigation of the relationships of current informal science learning behaviors, both individual and intergenerational, to prior learning variables such as school science achievement, parental involvement, college experience, career choice, and prior use of informal learning resources while respondents were school-aged.

Project Report

The Longitudinal Study of American Youth (LSAY) is a 26-year longitudinal study of a national sample of 7th and 10th grade public school students. The LSAY began in the fall of 1987 and have followed the same students during the last 26 years. This award focused on the use of informal science learning resources by the young adults in the LSAY, including the use of informal science learning resources with their children. It is important to study the relationship between formal and informal science learning at this point in our national history. The young adults in the LSAY are now 37 to 40 years of age and represent the core of Generation X. They are the first Americans to have grown up in the Electronic Era. LSAY young adults and their children have more access to formal and informal science learning than any generation in human history, and it is important to document and understand the patterns of use that are emerging. The 26-year record of the LSAY demonstrates that a strong foundation in formal science education is important -- if not essential -- to facilitate effective use of many of the traditional and emerging informal science learning resources. There is a large amount of printed and online information available about climate change, for example, but the ability to locate, understand, and integrate that information in a functional understanding of the issue and the policy alternatives depends on having acquired a vocabulary of core scientific concepts that are often referred to as civic scientific literacy. Individuals who understand the structure of matter and the organization and operation of our solar system will be better equipped to understand public debates about the use and release of carbon into the atmosphere and its interaction with solar radiation. And adults who understand the nature and role of DNA and the structure of a cell will be more able to understand and make sense of the arguments about embryonic stem cell research. Using a standard of civic scientific literacy that has been used in studies of U.S. adults for more than 25 years and in more than 40 countries, 44% of the young adults in the LSAY qualified as being scientifically literate. Since only 29% of all American adults age 18 and older quality as civic scientific literate, this results indicates a significant generational improvement. An analysis of the use of informal science learning resources in 2009 found that young adults in the LSAY visited an informal science learning facility (museum or science center) 3.3 times per year, watched 50 science television shows per year, read 1.4 science magazines per year, and read 6.5 science magazines per year. These same young adults reported using the Internet at home about 435 hours per year and reading 147 newspapers per year. It is clear that these young adults are active science information consumers and that they utilize a mixture of traditional print and emerging electronic sources. An examination of how LSAY young adults acquire scientific information on two specific issues -- the influenza epidemic of 2009 and climate change -- found that most young adults rely on a combination of traditional media use, online information acquisition, and conversations with friends and work colleagues to obtain and make sense of these issues. This finding is interesting and important because it provides verification that the interaction between media-based information and inter-personal influence first described by scholars in the 1950's continues in the Electronic Era. The modes of communication have changed, but the basic processes have not shifted significantly. A separate analysis of how LSAY young adults use informal science learning resources with their children found that the cumulative advantage found in previous generations persists into the newest generation. LSAY young adults with baccalaureate or higher educations are significantly more likely to use print, broadcast, museum, and electronic science information materials to interest and instruct their children in science and mathematics. Because of their own educational achievements, they often have a broader and more accurate understanding of various scientific ideas and constructs and are better equipped to use available informal science learning resources as a teaching tool.

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University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor
United States
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