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Informal science education

By Mary Bigelow

Posted on 2008-08-06

To a science teacher, an ideal summer day might include a stroll through a zoo or botanical garden, a cool afternoon in a planetarium or aquarium, a hike in a state or national park with a pair of binoculars and a guidebook, or a visit to a museum. On these personal field trips, we don’t need to worry about permission slips and bus counts – we can enjoy and learn on our own terms with family and friends.

What happens in these out-of-classroom programs is referred to as “informal education.” These experiences allow us to choose and explore topics of personal interest and learn new things. NSTA’s position statement on informal science education recognizes the contributions of informal science institutions and organizations in providing opportunities for lifelong learning. Check out the article Formal vs. Informal Education for a comparison of these.

It’s enjoyable to visit one of these places with another science teacher. The level of conversation is different than when you visit these places alone or with your families. A day exploring one of these venues and discussing science topics is a great way to increase or integrate content knowledge. For example, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, my colleague and I spent a lot of time with the exhibits related to plate tectonics. We learned new content information, and the displays gave us some ideas for sharing this with our students. We took lots of notes. Our spouses (who are not science teachers) eventually gave up and wandered off to other exhibits!

Or visit these places through the eyes of a child or teenager. What strategies do the informal educators use to attract our attention and hold our interest in the exhibits? Learning Science Beyond the Classroom in the summer issue of The Science Teacher describes some of these techniques. Could any of these apply to the formal classroom?

As the price of travel increases, don’t overlook places closer to home. To find a new place to visit, check out the website of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the American Association of Museums.

Many of these informal science venues have excellent websites, too. I can spend hours on the website of the Exploratorium in San Francisco with its comprehensive collection of lessons and demonstrations for the classroom. These institutions may also have virtual tours, too. The National Park Service website has armchair views of the parks – not quite the same as being there, but still a good learning experience.

With all that we can learn both onsite and online, perhaps we need to coin a new phrase: informal professional development. This process keeps us informed and up-to-date, extending our previous content knowledge and inspiring us to learn new things. I’m sure that my childhood visits to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia had a profound influence on my own interest in science.

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