"Most Americans gain the bulk of their knowledge about science somewhere other than school," said John Falk, a professor of science education at Oregon State University, co-principal investigator on this project and one of the nation's leaders in promoting free-choice learning initiatives.
Adult science literacy in the United States is actually high, in comparison to other nations and younger students.
"However, a number of rural areas and small communities don't have easy access to the range of museums, zoos, aquariums, high-speed Internet connections and other facilities that can make free-choice learning accessible," Falk
"With this program we hope to identify the types of programs and topics that will be of interest to people in these areas, and give them new ways to explore those interests".
and Lynn Dierking, also a professor of science education at OSU
and a national leader in this movement, say it is gaining increasing interest and may provide another avenue to increased science literacy - and one that is not about children spending more hours in school.
"Average Americans spend less than 5 percent of their life in classrooms, and an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school," Dierking and Falk
wrote in one recent analysis.
In the U.S., as per Falk
and Dierking, free-choice learning is how most adults learn most of what they know about science.
"Free-choice learning can be watching a nature show on television, researching the Internet about a health issue when a family member is sick, going to a museum or just reading about a topic that interests you," Falk
"And some of it is parents who try to be supportive with their children, taking them to places where they can learn.
We're just beginning to learn what all the possibilities are".
An important aspect of these initiatives, the scientists said, is helping families who may not have a history of using free-choice learning with their children, especially since poor and minority children are consistently the least benefited by school.
In a recent paper published in American Scientist, Falk
and Dierking note that the dominant assumption of educational policy for decades has been that school is the only place where children learn.