Informal science education is more about people than about collections and artifacts. Therefore, to understand informal science education, you must understand its people; their motivations, experiences, roles, and visions as well as the opportunities informal education provides to the public, especially schools.
The term informal science is unfortunate because on first glance it connotes something less valuable than the more structured formal education. Yet we have come to know that, “Much that each human being knows about the world is acquired informally . . .” (Donovan and Bransford 2005, p. 1). While informal in the sense of relaxed and experientially oriented, informal science education has considerable power and influence on learning when used wisely. That is why it is so important for teachers to take advantage of informal science education opportunities.
Informal science education occurs in a variety of settings from museums and parks to planetariums and recreation centers. The array of informal education configurations is enormous yet all follow the same basic premise of educating through flexible, interesting, and often entertaining methods. And, consistent with the National Science Education Standards, informal education almost always leans toward inquiry-based interactive lessons and activities.
Despite its importance, informal education is frequently not well used or integrated into formal education institutions. Former NSTA President John Penick has experience integrating informal science as Professor and Head of the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education at North Carolina State University. He says that his department offers informal seminars and courses as needed and that students now participate in museum and other informal internships.
For those interested in starting an informal science program, Penick suggests that they should “promote the fact that even formal science education has informal components and that virtually all our students have informal as well as formal interests.” He goes on to explain that “As difficult as it is to know enough science to function at a high level, to keep up with current science events, and to motivate some students, informal science education can help. In our studies 20 years ago of outstanding school science programs, we found that the most effective programs and teachers took advantage of both informal and formal opportunities to engage their students.”
Informal science education is the result of a complex intermingling of very formal, even classic, education theories and methodologies applied to a nonschool setting. Formal and informal education working together make a formidable team. The juxtaposition of these two seeming opposites can be very compelling, particularly when viewed through the lens of lifelong learning. Learning the content of formal education is obviously an important and necessary step in science as in other disciplines, while the inquiry-based attitudes and processes critical to the advancement of science and creativity are the underpinnings of informal science. While content is constantly changing and standards continue to evolve, the inquiry process instills in students ways to approach any content and solve problems and challenges wrapped into content (Wojnowski and Smith 2004).
Carter (2003) describes the core of the inquiry-based, creative process when he says that mistakes can present ideal learning situations for students and result in an end product better than what was originally intended. Such is the nature of informal science education. Carr (1990) goes back to the classic 1975 work by Gallagher in Teaching the Gifted Child in stating, “When more [educators] recognize that the facts they teach today will be replaced by the discoveries of tomorrow, the content-versus-process controversy may be resolved” (p. 1). The resolution of this controversy is the intermingling of formal and informal science for the benefit of all students.
Brenda Wojnowski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Inventive Education Inc., National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation.
Carter, P. 2003. Taking creative lessons to heart. Teaching Pre-k to 8 33: 52–53.
Carr, K. 1990. How can we teach critical thinking? ED326304. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.
Donovan, M.S., and J.D. Bransford. 2005. How students learn: Science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Research Council.
Wojnowski, B., and H. Smith. 2004. Sustaining partnerships with elementary schools: Examples from an informal science center. In Proceedings of the conference on K–12 outreach from university science departments: Linking the science in the classroom to the science in the laboratory, eds. D.G. Haase and S.K. Schulze. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.