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Advancing Ideas about Learning

Advancing Ideas about Learning

At the Exploratorium, we view learning broadly and believe there are different ways of learning and knowing: through direct experience with phenomena, through art, through dialogue, and through tinkering (exploring and testing ideas while building something). We work to change the way the world learns and to promote equal access to these powerful ways of learning about the world.

Our Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS)—a collaboration with a number of universities and research agencies—was founded to develop a new generation of leaders (academics, researchers, and practitioners) who could better understand and support science learning across formal and informal settings. We have a decades-long commitment to art as a way of knowing about the natural world, reflected in our extensive arts programming as well as a recent Art as a Way of Knowing conference. And our Tinkering Studio, which has a global reach through its professional networks and online resources, fosters learning through the process of making.

We believe that research and evaluation are critical steps in understanding the nature of learning and in designing for learning innovation. Our staff includes twenty-four PhD or equivalent-level professionals who carry out fundamental and applied research.

Conducting research allows us to study learning broadly; evaluation enables us to consider how our work can be improved. The books, reports, and studies we produce don’t just affect our own work; they also influence the design of learning environments worldwide. Our studies include in-depth examinations of how exhibit design choices afford more inclusive or open-ended engagement (Active Prolonged Engagement), national studies of learning in after-school settings (Museums Afterschool: Principles, Data, and Design), inquiry-based exhibit strategies, longitudinal studies of students in our High School Explainer Program, and studies of how children can be supported to learn science through equity-oriented tinkering programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs in San Francisco. We disseminate our research through publications, workshops, and conferences.

Here are some of our programs and projects that advance ideas about learning.

  • Visitor Research and Evaluation (VRE): The VRE group conducts research studies on learning in informal environments at the Exploratorium, as well as evaluation studies that inform and improve the exhibits and programs developed here. A variety of reports and publications produced by VRE are available online, along with information about VRE projects, such as GIVE (Group Inquiry by Visitors at Exhibits).
  • Center for Informal Learning and Schools (CILS): CILS strengthens science education through research and leadership programs that expand conceptions of learning across formal and informal environments. Between 2002 and 2008, CILS supported the development of fourteen PhDs in the social sciences, thirteen postdoctoral fellows, sixteen natural science PhDs trained in informal learning and outreach, and more than four hundred leaders from informal science institutions.

    Since 2008, CILS has received more than $10 million in federal and private foundation grants to lead a set of new projects and studies investigating how to strengthen connections between research and practice for both formal and informal educators, and for both researchers and practitioners. For example, we lead the federally funded Research+Practice Collaboratory, which works with universities and research agencies to develop new cultural models of the relationship between research and practice. And we developed the Relating Research to Practice website, which provides informal science educators with access to current peer-reviewed educational research studies.

  • Art as a Way of Knowing: This conference, organized by the Exploratorium and sponsored by the National Science Foundation, took place on March 3 & 4, 2011, in San Francisco. It brought together an international group of artists, scientists, museum curators, writers, educators, and other cross-pollinators to explore and discuss the role of aesthetic inquiry in public interdisciplinary learning environments. It examined historical precedents, explored the nature of learning through the arts, and profiled compelling contemporary models for the arts in interdisciplinary contexts. This site contains videos and articles from the conference and readings related to the topic.