I started my career as a biology teacher and honestly enjoyed being in a high school classroom as a teacher. But I found jobs at an outdoor learning center and a state park early in my career and never found my way back to the classroom. Over time, I slowly discovered the difference between science education and interpretation.
Schools, science centers and science agencies quite reasonably hope to teach people about some of the most important concepts in science. Standardized exams in school ask questions that revolve around those important basic concepts. But parks, zoos, museums, nature centers, aquariums and science centers introduce science to people in leisure settings where there will be no test. Are we attempting to “educate” people in these non-formal settings? Research on retention of information suggests that people, even if engaged in free-choice learning, do not always carry away much information from these settings.
Interpretation is unique among education-related fields in being focused on creating connections to content rather than specific information retention, in most cases. We want to inspire our guests to learn more on their own and deepen their understanding of ideas, ecosystems and processes. We want to influence their attitudes in hopes they will want to know more about science or take some action related to revealing the mysteries of nature and the universe. And research suggests that if we are truly successful in getting people to think more deeply about our subject, they may remember very little specific information. Their minds are more engaged in thinking about where they are and what it means to them.
If we truly engage people and get them to think, they might buy books at our store, sign up for a behind the scenes tour, visit another museum or science center or become a volunteer. They may be inspired to choose a career or change their behavior to demonstrate their deeper understanding of environmental or social issues. In my view, those are better reflections of engagement than remembering facts. A person who is turned on by good interpretation learns much faster on their own, digging into the subjects that delight them in ways they enjoy on their own time, long after their encounter with the original speaker, program, or exhibits is over. He or she might watch TV shows on science, read books, take trips to unique ecosystems, explore with field guides or technological aids, or become advocates for science-related topics.
We need to encourage more young people to become scientists or to become supporters of science. Scientists can help by becoming better communicators, focusing more on engaging their audiences rather than lecturing, getting them to think more than remember, and lighting a spark of interest that may flare into a new passion for the world around them. Parents can encourage their children by simply taking them out into nature very young and spend time in nature centers, museums and science centers. We live on a beautiful planet and a career in science is a journey of joy and wonder.