Oregon State University

Free-Choice Learning Professional Certificate


This innovative program immerses museum, zoo, aquarium and science outreach professionals and volunteers in free-choice learning theories. Participants will work with some of the field’s leading researchers and learn how to apply informal learning environments theories in real-world educational settings.

Participants can earn the Free-Choice Learning Professional Certificate by completing each required course for this program or take individual courses without enrolling in the professional certificate program. Download a flier with program information. 

Watch an online information session about the Free-Choice Learning certificate program. 

The Oregon State Free-Choice Learning certificate is a proud partner with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) specializing in Education & Interpretation. 

OSU is an AZA Learning Partner


Courses in the Free-Choice Learning professional certificate are designed by the same instructors as the Oregon State University M.S. program. Faculty and staff vary according to the course schedule.

Course Designers

Lynn Dierking




 Lynn Dierking, Sea Grant Professor 

John Falk




 John H. Falk, Sea Grant Professor 

 Shawn Rowe


Shawn Rowe, Marine Education and Learning Specialist at Oregon Sea Grant Extension 

Course Instructors

 Jennifer Bachman




Jennifer Bachman, Instructor and Program Coordinator

Kerry Carlin-Morgan




Kerry Carlin-Morgan, Director of Public Programs at Oregon Coast Aquarium


Marianna Adama



Marianna Adams, Consultant at The Museum Group

Céleste Frazier Barthel



Céleste Frazier Barthel, science educator pursuing her Ph.D. in Free Choice Learning at Oregon State University


Michelle MilehamMichelle Mileham, PhD candidate in the Environmental Sciences Graduate Program at Oregon State University

Program Outline

To earn the Free Choice Learning certificate, students must complete three core courses and one elective. Those enrolling in either certificate track receive a $150 discount on total cost. Descriptions of two different enrollment options and their respective electives are below. Follow the links in each option to enroll. To enroll in individual courses, please check here.

A nonrefundable $50 registration fee is required to enroll in the certificate track.

Core Courses

Designing Learning Environments: Physical dimensions of free-choice learning

Online | 30 hours

Learning is influenced by the interaction of variables within three contexts — personal, socio-cultural and physical. This course focuses on how macro-scale environmental factors, like space, crowding and novelty, and micro-scale environmental factors, like design elements, real objects and different media, support free-choice learning.

Instructors: Jennifer Bachman, Ph.D.
Lynn Dierking, Ph.D.
Shawn Rowe, Ph.D.
John Falk, Ph.D.

Launches April 2014

Examining The Learner’s Own Ideas: Personal dimensions of free-choice learning

Online | 30 hours

Investigates the fundamental roles that identity, motivation, interest, prior knowledge and experience, and choice and control play in supporting learning and how learning leaders can build on these dimensions of learning in order to successfully engage lifelong learners.

Instructors: Jennifer Bachman
Lynn Dierking
Shawn Rowe
John Falk

Launches September 2014

Understanding Cultural Influence: Sociocultural dimensions of free-choice learning

Online | 30 hours

Investigates connections between theories of free-choice learning and the fundamental concepts of sociology, social psychology and anthropology: social stratification, social structure and interaction, social institutions, and cultural background.

Instructors: Jennifer Bachman
Lynn Dierking
Shawn Rowe
John Falk

Launches January 2014


How to Conduct Learning Research in a Museum

Online | 15 hours

Examines how practitioners can conduct research at their site and develops best practices.

Instructor: Shawn Rowe

Launches June 2014

Developing STEM Curriculum

Online | 15 hours

Defines, examines and develops curriculum and professional practice in free-choice settings

Instructor: Jennifer Bachman

Launches January 2014

Developing Effective Evaluations

Online | 15 hours

Provides an introductory course that focuses on providing a hands-on approach to effectively assessing/evaluating learning and behavior within the free-choice learning contexts such as museums, national parks, zoos, aquariums and broadcast media. The design and implementation of an evaluation is used as a lens for understanding the hows and whys of assessment and evaluation. This course is designed to help professionals design their own evaluation/assessment research as well as become informed consumers of others’ research.

Instructors: Jennifer Bachman
Marianna Adams, Ph.D.

Launches April 2014

Experiential Learning: Self-Directed Field Trips

Online | 15 hours

Integration of field trips into the K-12 science curriculum and best practices for field trips, managing field trip logistics, writing goals and objectives, preparing lesson plans and working with a community institution.

Instructor: Kerry Carlin-Morgan

Launches TBA

What is free-choice learning?

Free-choice learning is all about deciding what, where and how we want to learn over the course of our lifetimes. It's the learning that takes place all the time, outside of the classroom, no matter how young or old you are.

Learn more about OSU's research on free-choice learning below.

Free-choice learning comes of age

Study confirms free-choice learning's impact on community

Advisory Board

Sally Duensing, PhD Visiting Professor, King's College London

Alan J. Friedman, PhD Consultant in Museum Development & Science Communication

Judy Koke, Education Director at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Jan Packer, PhD Senior Research Fellow at University of Queensland, Australia

Heather Toomey Zimmerman, PhD Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University



Select a question to view or hide the answer
Is there an application process or simply pay and take courses?

There is not a formal application—just filling out basic information and paying. The deadlines change depending on the course. If you want to enroll in the full certificate program, you can do that at anytime. The three core courses run at the same time each year: fall, winter, spring. The electives run at different times throughout the year. But you can jump into the Free-Choice certificate at any time since they are not sequential.

How do the courses work? Are there online lectures at a certain date/time?

Courses are pre-recorded by the instrcutor and completed fully online. Lectures are not held at a specific time, you may access them as you wish. However, students will have assignment and discussion post deadlines.

I was wondering what the difference in the Masters program vs. the professional certificate will be, both in finances and in work load.

The Free-Choice certificate program was created as a mirror of the graduate program in order to access a broader audience with the material and research. This means that the curriculum, readings and even instructors are the same as the graduate program. But the certificate program has significantly less reading and fewer assignments in order to accommodate those who work full-time and are balancing a full life load. The similarities also extend to the community created between students in the course. The certificate encourages peer review and evaluation to create a community of practice, just like the graduate program.

In terms of cost, the difference is significant. The M.S. program charges $496 per credit and it is a 45-credit degree. The certificate program is $540 per course with 3 core courses and 1 required elective. We offer a discount of $150 for the certificate, as well. The enrollment for the certificate is open, unlike the graduate school competitive application process. 

Can I take the courses out of context? Is this program offered every year?

Yes, you can take the courses in any order, as long as you end up taking three core courses and one elective.

We are offering discounts for individual courses this first year. We hope to have the courses every year.

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Professional and Continuing Education
4943 The Valley Library
Corvallis, OR 97331-4504

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