CORVALLIS, Ore. - Oregon State University has incorporated an option for "free-choice learning" into its programs for K-12 and college educators - a concept that challenges some of the basic tenets of science instruction, and if widely adopted could change the face of education.

As political, business and educational leaders in the United States bemoan public understanding of science and math, proponents of free-choice learning suggest that rigid instructional programs focused only on young students are a key part of the problem. New approaches that more widely embrace individual interests, personal curiosity and lifelong learning could be part of the solution, they say.

The current emphasis on standardized tests and specific core requirements compound the problem, researchers say. They hope the new OSU program, believed to be the only one of its type in the nation, will provide insights and produce future leaders to help lead an educational revolution.

"There are some days I think we should just do away with all the schools and then re-invent them," said John Falk , a Sea Grant professor of free-choice learning in the Department of Science and Mathematics Education of OSU's College of Science.

"I really believe that our current approach to teaching science is fundamentally flawed," he said.

Advocates of free-choice learning point out that an average adult spends only about 3 percent of their life in any kind of formal instruction, and much of what they know about science is learned during free time or on the job - reading a magazine, touring a museum, talking to neighbors, dealing with a health issue or poking around the Internet on some topic that interests them. No one makes them do it, and they learn simply because they are interested or need to know something, often motivated by life experiences.

They may have learned little or nothing about the immune system and allergies during high school biology, but become surprisingly informed when their child develops asthma. An interest in a criminal trial might prompt learning about DNA tracking technology. A visit to the zoo may help them learn more than they ever knew before about reptile behavior. And this process continues for a lifetime, not just a few class hours - and in its totality is probably as or more important than what they learned in school.

"We're concerned that a lot of inherent interest in science and math is being compromised by rigid school programs that insist everyone must learn certain things in certain ways, all at the same time," said Lynn Dierking , also a Sea Grant professor in free-choice science and math education.

"Future success in science careers is correlated most closely to early out-of-school experiences that promote interest, rather than success in any particular science or mathematics course in school," Dierking said. "We need to focus on helping children understand their own interests and then build on that, both in school and, equally important, during their out-of-school hours."

Toward that goal, OSU has newly created programs that offer an emphasis in free-choice learning at both the masters and doctoral level. Dierking is a member of the Access Algebra team, being developed by OMSI in Portland, to create a traveling exhibition about algebra. And the university is also one of four partners helping to create a new national Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education , with major funding from the National Science Foundation.

Among the research programs that are under way by Falk, Dierking and their colleague Shawn Rowe:

  • The long term impact of free-choice learning approaches on girls
  • How free-choice science and mathematics learning "infrastructure" could be coalesced into a valuable and energized professional community;
  • Why people go to museums and engage in other activities that blend leisure and learning;
  • The impact of a public television awareness and action campaign on invasive species;
  • The nature of public understanding of science as focused, "working" knowledge driven by life experiences and need;
  • Better understanding the learning in aquariums and science centers, including research on touch-tanks, hand-held devices and engaging underserved audiences; 
  •  The design and testing of training activities for professionals working in zoos and aquariums.

"One thing we already know is that traditional methods used to measure science literacy are flawed," Dierking said. "Phone surveys ask a series of textbook-like questions to find out specific facts that you don't know, and then conclude that people know little or nothing about science. That just isn't true. On scientific issues that relate to their lives or personal interests, people often know quite a lot."

OSU researchers readily concede that a common body of scientific knowledge is necessary to some extent, and in some fields more so than others - you wouldn't want to drive across a bridge designed by an engineer with little knowledge of physics. But most students are not going to become engineers, they said, and not everyone really needs to learn about angular momentum to become a scientifically literate citizen.

"In schools we should help students understand the scientific process, the science behind important societal issues, and give them a general understanding of logic, experimentation, statistics, mathematics, the basic tools of science," Falk said. "But right now our schools have these big thick books with specific science material that everyone is supposed to know.

"That's just overkill," Falk added, "and it's doing more damage than good."

The problem, the researchers say, is that individual interests get lost in the equation - young students are told what to learn, not allowed to learn the things they find most interesting. They often develop rebellious attitudes and, at worst, become alienated to the very process of learning and education. The relentless emphasis on specific coursework, diplomas and degrees does an effective job of weeding out many students who are naturally bright and interested, but want more control and flexibility over what they learn.

And the lack of those degrees may then haunt their future career efforts, regardless of how much talent or knowledge they may have.

"The idea of treating learning and schooling as synonyms, assuming that someone could learn everything they need to know in school, is a recent phenomenon," Falk said. "It's not a viable model for education or a successful society in the 21st century, if it ever was. And improved science literacy is not something we're going to achieve just by throwing more money and resources at our schools, or adding more tests for students to take."

Investments are needed in the entire science learning infrastructure, the researchers said, which will encourage a model of lifelong learning, in science and other disciplines.

"Schools should try to nurture individual interests, not weed people out," Falk said. "The long-term focus should be an informed, happy and productive citizenry, with the ability and opportunity to pursue learning about science and mathematics throughout the lifespan."

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John Falk,