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Report Defends Benefits Of Zoos, Public Exhibits

February 4, 2009

A new report has found that institutions of informal learning, such as zoos, can be useful in triggering a passion for science in young children.

Even as President Barack Obama has vowed to “restore science to its rightful place,” some states are facing decisions that could result in large budget cuts for public zoos and other useful institutions of education.

The report, published in the National Academy of Sciences, found that informal learning — such as at zoos or just while fishing or gardening — is a powerful tool in science education.

“Learning is broader than schooling, and informal science environments and experiences play a crucial role,” said Philip Bell, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, and associate professor of learning sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle. 

But the recession is not helping the growth of such institutions to keep inspiring children to pursue a career in science.

Reuters has reported that the state of New York is facing a $15.4 billion budget gap, and therefore may be forced to cut $9 million it usually provides to 76 institutions, including zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens.

New York’s governor also proposed cutting the funding by 55 percent this year, but that is expected to be rejected by state legislators this week after intense lobbying by zoos, according to the new agency.

“New York depends very heavily on Wall Street for its revenues,” said Jeffery Gordon, the governor’s budget spokesman.

But Steven Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society said that officials are overlooking the value of “the out-of-classroom science education opportunity.”

He told Reuters that he has had to cut $15 million from the $100 million budget that covers the century-old Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium in Brooklyn, as well as WCS administration.

Bell’s report advises educators to work with local communities to develop exhibits that are “rooted in scientific problems, ideas, and activities that are meaningful to these local communities.”

According to a press release, the report outlines six “strands” of science learning that can happen in informal settings, and these strands could help refine evaluations of how well people are learning in these environments.

“These experiences can kick-start and sustain long-term interests that involve sophisticated learning,” said Bell

“Think of the child who sees dinosaur skeletons for the first time on a family trip to a natural history museum, and then goes on to buy dinosaur models and books, do Web searches about dinosaurs, write school reports on the subject, and on and on.”

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