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Teacher-Learning, Meaning-Making, and Integrating ISE Practices in Diverse Urban Classrooms

Connected Science Learning July–August 2022 (Volume 4, Issue 4)

By Jennifer D. Adams, Amy DeFelice, and Susan McCullough

Teacher-Learning, Meaning-Making, and Integrating ISE Practices in Diverse Urban Classrooms

The informal science education (ISE) field has long advocated for science-rich cultural institutions and schools to work together to create ecosystems of enriching science teaching and learning experiences for teachers and students (Bevan et al. 2010). Science teacher learning at the nexus of formal and informal education allows teachers to leverage the affordances of each in their teaching practice (Gupta, Trowbridge, and MacDonald 2016). Affordances of ISE teacher learning includes motivating structures for learning to teach, opportunities to learn inquiry-based teaching approaches, unique opportunities for the development of content and pedagogical knowledge, and deeper understandings about the nature of science and work of scientists (Avraamidou 2014). Accessing these affordances in teacher learning contributes to the development of teacher agency and identities that are responsive to the shifting social contexts of the classroom (Adams and Gupta 2017) and supports the development of “more equitable learning ecologies that are inclusive of all students and supportive of student interest driven learning, empowerment and agency” (Rahm 2016, p. 195).  

Our research suggests that science teachers aim to inspire lifelong science learning in their students through meaningful science teaching, especially for diverse learners who are often excluded from enriching science learning opportunities (Adams and Gupta 2013). In defining diversity, we avoid the conceptual narrowing that limits the definition to only include racial, linguistic, and ethnic differences (Liu and Ball 2019). Instead, we use an intersectional definition that describes diverse learners as all who are historically underserved in education, including “typically marginalized student groups enrolled in urban school districts, such as culturally and linguistically diverse Latinx or Black students who generally qualify for the federal free/reduced lunch program” (Avalos, Perez, and Thorrington 2020, p. 225) as well as those with physical and cognitive disabilities. Increasing the engagement of diverse learners require educators to be able to create learning experiences that make science relevant in students’ lives and their communities (Marco-Bujosa, Friedman, and Kramer 2021). Partnerships and collaborations between informal and formal institutions for teacher education are positioned to meet this aim.

Collaborative Space for Teacher Learning

This article emerges from a larger NSF-funded research-to-practice project entitled Informal Learning Environments in Teacher Education for STEM (ILETES). The core group of the research project was the ILETES Collaborative (hereafter the Collaborative), a group of nine teachers who taught middle or high school science in New York City public schools who had also engaged in ISE either as a part of their preservice or inservice teacher training or both. The preservice training entailed credit-bearing courses taught in partnership with Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and the American Museum of Natural History. Inservice professional development included teacher learning as a part of a citywide initiative that connects science-rich cultural institutions across the city—including zoos, botanic gardens, a science center, and an aquarium—with schools.

The Collaborative was facilitated by a City University of New York (CUNY)-based Principal Investigator (PI) and supported by a faculty member and two doctoral research collaborators, all affiliated with the Urban Education PhD program. The CUNY-based PI had prior experiences as a high school science teacher in the same system and as a museum educator at the natural history museum. The research collaborators also had a range of experiences in formal and informal science and museum-based teaching and were therefore able to contribute from both practical and theoretical perspectives.

The Collaborative teachers taught in schools that ranged from being situated in districts with large populations of Black, Latinx, and lower-income immigrant students to an affluent district with predominantly white, middle-class students. With shared interests and goals of improving science teaching and learning in public schools, the ILETES Collaborative met twice a month for over the course of three years.

The Collaborative was designed to be a dialogic space of open-ended discussion with a goal of generating shared understandings about incorporating ISE in their classrooms. The teachers shared videos and photographs of their classes, lesson plans, and other artifacts of teaching while reflecting on the implementations and collectively discussing ways to adapt lessons and improve learning experiences for their students. These meetings became resources for teachers to co-generate meanings of ISE while developing repertoires of activities that were doable within the constraints of their schools and while also meeting the needs of their diverse students. The meetings were audio recorded, transcribed, and analyzed by the CUNY research team and shared with the Collaborative for member-checking and discussion (Adams, forthcoming).

teacher collaborative discussion

The Value of ISE for Teachers

In the initial dialogues of the Collaborative, participating teachers leaned toward reflecting on their ISE teacher learning and discussing the ways that they were able to implement what they learned in their classrooms. These early implementations were limited to field trips and narrowly discussed as “hands-on” or “inquiry-based” activities. To deepen this initial understanding of how teachers defined ISE, as researchers we posed the direct question of “How do you define informal science education?” We found that teachers viewed formal and informal learning in contrast and used terms like rigid for formal and flexible and dynamic for informal. They also used terms like open-ended and unexpected to describe ISE learning outcomes. As Jackie, a middle school teacher noted, “[with formal] you have a plan in mind with inquiry and have some type of idea of what you want kids to learn. In informal you leave it more up to students deciding what their end goals are going to be.” Regina, a high school teacher chimed in, “when I think of formal it is more procedural based, here is a lab, here’s your procedure, you follow it step by step, but don’t skip a step. But things where there is more freedom to either design something on your own or more of an inquiry-based approach [with teacher guidance] is informal.” For the Collaborative teachers, initial conceptions of ISE were further associated with bringing authentic science and inquiry-based approaches into the classroom (Adams and McCullough 2021).

With these meanings in mind, the teachers were introduced to the National Academies Press publications, “Surrounded by Science” and “Learning Science in Informal Environments” to see how the field defined ISE and how these definitions resonated with their own notions of teaching and learning in the “formal” classroom. During a discussion of “strands of informal science learning” (National Research Council 2009, p. 43), Wei, a high school teacher in his first year of teaching remarked, “This is just good teaching!”

These initial discussions about ISE provided hints to aspects that teachers valued. Wei noted, “[ISE] could be just thinking, could be discussing, should be sharing out…I think that’s almost informal.” Luis, a high school teacher responded, “I think kids learn just as much from each other,” recognizing the salience of collaboration in learning but also identifying it as ISE. Wei also described ISE as “visual learning and hands-on activities” to “motivate them to [learn] whatever concept I want them to know” and mentioned “collaborative learning” as a part of this motivation process.

Over time, the group cogenerated new meanings of ISE that resonated with their experiences, observations, and values as science teachers. For a National Science Teaching Association presentation, the Collaborative articulated:

[ISE is] a way of approaching science teaching and learning that is personally meaningful, has real-world relevance and allows students to engage in science and engineering practices in multifaceted ways in and outside the classroom. ISE approaches encourage creativity and push students to become innovative, critical thinkers, in ways that exceed learning expectations. (Smith, T., et al. 2018)

For the Collaborative, the meaning of ISE further shifted over time from solely focusing on practices to including the affordances that ISE approaches provided diverse learners. In the following sections we highlight some of the teacher discussions that contributed to the evolution of ISE for the classroom.  

Finding Opportunities in Constraints

ISE is often associated with field trips and out-of-classroom learning as well as having a range of tools of science (i.e., microscopes, rock samples, and triple beam balances) in the classroom available to teach science. Further, teachers often felt constrained in their science teaching in their schools. For example, Evelyn often discussed how she had to advocate for science in her school, “I think sometimes the culture of my school is that science is not important.” In a school that emphasized math and English language because they were the assessed subjects, science had limited time and resources. Jackie, a high school teacher concurred, “We’re under [a] structure. We can’t do what we really want to do, and I think that’s why we get frustrated.” However, as teachers continued to engage in the Collaborative, these conversations shifted to using ISE approaches in ways that overcame the challenges that come with the realities of schooling.

During the discussion on the six strands of ISE as outlined in “Learning Science in Informal Environments” mentioned above, Jackie noted, “The one I struggle with most is using tools, just because sometimes we don’t have them available to us, so it’s hard to incorporate that into our lessons … but that’s a really important part of science.” Matt prompted his colleagues to think beyond ISE as field trips, “why can’t we just put the informal inside the classroom, why does it have to be outside the classroom? When you think of what it is—we are learning, we’re relaxed, we’re critically thinking, why can’t we just do that in the classroom?” Matt taught high school Earth science in the Bronx where many of his students lived, “not in public housing, not in regular apartments, but in shelters.” His school was concerned about passing rates on the standardized exam, “I’ve got to worry about [passing rates] or I lose my job.” For learning new material and reviewing previously taught content, Matt’s participation in the Collaborative supported him to design activities that creatively used his classroom space to foster student-centered, collaborative learning, “I designed a model where I construct alternative, four different paths for the students to go through stations.” He initially learned station teaching in an ISE professional development and adapted it for his students with different abilities. As he showed the video of his students engaged in the activity, he described the different pathways where students with differing levels of understanding progressed at their own challenge and also allowed students with higher levels of understanding to help others. His aim was to ensure that the lowest performing students understand, “because if my lowest performing students display an understanding or mastery of the concept … then I know that I am going to have a successful lesson…because I can assume most of my students understand it.” Matt’s notion of ISE included using the space in his classroom to structure learning that fosters student agency and embedding reflection, peer-to-peer learning and self-assessment to make their learning visible.  

Matt’s comment prompted the Collaborative to think differently about ISE in ways that disrupted the dichotomy of formal versus informal, moving them toward conceptualizing a continuum of practices along a formal to informal spectrum that meet students’ needs and learning goals. The Collaborative became the space where the conceptual resource of ISE was actively reimagined and adapted to meet the needs of their students and resonate with who they were becoming as teachers.

Thinking Expansively About Field Experiences

Evelyn, an African American teacher, valued exposing her mostly Black, Caribbean-immigrant students to a variety of science experiences within and outside of the school. Recognizing the brilliance in her students, she knew that they needed inspiration beyond textbooks and exams, “you put a book in front of them, they read and it’s just like, that’s it. But then they go out there and they feel like scientists, and they really connect what they are learning; it’s like this discovery, wow.” For Evelyn, it was important to “connect science and the real world” and therefore she used her weekends to take students on field trips,

I took a group of students out last week Saturday for free – I don’t get paid for that – I took them to Rockefeller University, every year they have a science center... and we had an amazing time and just to see my students when they are in those informal learning environments, how they learn, and the opportunity that they have because a lot of them don’t get that opportunity on an everyday basis. When I do take them out, I see how things they have learned in the classroom comes back to them. I’m just so passionate about that and seeing them in different environments and they’re so excited! That’s the thing—they are so beyond excited to just go somewhere different and see different things. And these kids love science! 

Beyond a traditional field trip to an informal science institution, Evelyn sought events where students could experience the relevance of the science they were learning in the classroom, “Our community and especially African American and Latino students, you don’t really see them becoming scientists [as often] because they are not [as likely to be] exposed to it and the parents at home [may] not really see the importance of science.” More than observing objects and exhibits, Evelyn planned her field trips to allow her students to interact with scientists, especially scientists and college science students of color—ask questions and expand on topics that they cover in the classroom. The field trips were also a source of professional growth for Evelyn; experiencing her students’ excitement and engagement helped further fuel her passion for expanding science learning opportunities for her students. She noted that the parents began to take notice that “what I am doing is benefitting the kids, but I think it benefits the school as a whole. The parents come, they are involved, they ask about me. They are excited, the kids are excited.” Sharing a racialized identity with her students, Evelyn noted, “in our communities…parents really need to understand that science is a very important subject, and that curiosity is the foundation for so many different things—asking questions, getting kids to think logically, just to expand on reasoning and explaining…” ISE experiences allowed Evelyn to share her passion for science with her students and advocate for the importance of science education with school administrators and parents.

students at board

Transforming Learning Spaces

When teaching science with an ISE lens, teachers emphasize learner-centered approaches. Matt described: “I become a facilitator without giving too much intervention.” Matt described how he first observed this approach in one of his ISE preservice courses, “Informal is exploring with no guidance, professors are stepping back and saying go out there and observe and come back and tell me what you found … students doing the building, professors nudging.” He wanted to incorporate this approach as much as he could as it allowed him to step back and watch his students learn and observe what topics and activities resonated with them and the ways they brought their cultures, as youth, into the classroom. For example, Matt shared pictures of tables that he painted with chalkboard paint and windows with students’ diagrams drawn with dry erase markers. He used the term “tagging” to describe this practice, transferring a word associated with graffiti or street art into the classroom. This was especially important for his students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) as it allowed them to generate their own visual cues for learning. If students were having trouble understanding a concept, he encouraged them to “work it out” on the chalk-desk, this also allowed him to see how they were thinking about a particular concept.

Matt also created a WhatsApp group, a social media communication tool already used by his students, to help reinforce concepts that they learned in the classroom (Adams 2019). In this WhatsApp group students posed questions, viewed Matt explaining concepts on his whiteboard in his garage, and participated in short quizzes while also having dialogues with each other about the concepts they were reviewing. They also offered each other encouraging words and expressed frustration when someone posted an answer before they had worked it out for themselves. In many ways, Matt brought the visual and tactile culture of museums into his classroom.           

Engaging in Real-World Science

The Collaborative teachers saw connecting real-world, everyday science with the classroom as a salient aspect of ISE. While real-world science could refer to engaging in practices of scientific research, it could also entail allowing students to learn about the science behind phenomena that is of interest to them. Getting students to ask questions about the natural and built worlds is essential because it affords multi-modal opportunities for science learning (DeFelice 2021).

Evelyn described how she encouraged students to draw on pop culture for a project that would later be shared with families on her school’s science night. Her students were able to choose any phenomena of interest to them. “This is the premise: come up with the concept, ‘tell me the science behind it, that’s it.’” Some chose the “Cinnamon Challenge,” a TikTok phenomenon. These students sought to understand what happens when a person ingests cinnamon. While the students did not use human subjects in their investigations, their inquiries still allowed them to examine questions of the type “what happens when...” Students made inferences between the properties of cinnamon and side-effects in humans. Other groups of students examined the science behind beauty trends such as lip enhancement while others stuck to more usual classroom science topics like plant growth. Evelyn reflected on the activity noting the level of student engagement, “I have IEP students who have instructional support, my [special education] students… everyone is working, everyone is engaged, you know during that project everyone was doing something. You had the kids who are the slower kids or ‘the bottom third,’ they’re working, they’re engaged like I’ve never seen.” Sofia, a Latina high school science teacher, agreed and responded, “You know it’s effective when the student who is usually in the bottom third comes and tells the upper third ‘Oh no, you’re wrong…’” Sofia and Evelyn both observed how the ISE practices of exploring personally relevant science topics engaged a range of learners.

Similarly, Tara explained a lesson she did on bodies in motion. For the lesson students went outside and participated in activities such as tug of war, relay race, arm wrestling, soccer penalty kicks, and skateboarding to investigate how their bodies move. Tara described the level of engagement in this way: “So the kids who were like quiet, yeah, they were involved. Like everyone was doing it.” ISE was a way of bringing everyday science into the classroom. It allowed students to have multiple entry points to and agency for their own learning while allowing teachers to observe their learners, both as unique individuals and as a classroom collective.


Evolving and Adapting as Teacher Learners

Learning to teach is an ongoing process. Teachers regularly seek new approaches or strategies to incorporate into their lessons for their diverse learners. Teachers learn different strategies for teaching through professional development programs, independent research, personal experiences, reflection, and importantly, from other teachers. Through “ongoing augmenting and adapting of resources at hand [to create] new science teaching engagements” (Adams 2020, p. 470), teachers expanded approaches to foster meaningful science learning. As Evelyn reflected, “As a teacher you are always evolving.” However, it can be challenging to continually revise one’s teaching practice. Evelyn continued, “I just feel like I’m constantly revamping, constantly thinking, but that’s my struggle. It’s not like, am I struggling as a teacher, but am I underestimating my kids? That’s what I’m always thinking. So that’s where the informal really gives me a chance to really see what my kids can do on their own without so much instruction.” For Evelyn and other teachers in the Collaborative, the ongoing questioning of their practice as teachers, how they were meeting the needs of their students, and the ways they were giving their students agency in their own learning were central to how they articulated and adapted ISE practices for their classrooms. ISE approaches allowed them to observe student learning and engagement, which, in turn, helped them further evolve their practices. Further, the teachers who taught in schools with large populations of racialized students viewed informal science learning as a way for students to build positive associations with science learning (DeFelice 2021; Adams 2020) as well as make science relevant to their home, family, and community, and a space for imagining possible careers.

Challenges and Successes to Dialogic Teacher Learning

The dialogic nature of the Collaborative resulted in a number of successes not typically present in more structured professional development formats. For example, when teachers participate in ISE learning, they often become excited about sharing the same experiences with their students and these experiences are often centered around the resources at the ISE site. However, when teachers return to the classroom and are confronted by existing logistical and administrative constraints, the excitement wanes. This often leads to teachers not implementing ISE experiences or practices in their classrooms. The examples shared in this article suggest that participation in an ongoing dialogic space, like the Collaborative, that allows teachers to share their ideas about science teaching and learning may be an effective strategy for translating professional learning to classroom implementation. The Collaborative meetings were structured in ways that allowed these and other dialogues to emerge. For instance, a “loose agenda” structured the meetings that first involved a check-in and opportunities for teachers to share reflections, ideas, artifacts, and challenges that came about since the last meeting. Usually, these check-ins provided context for fruitful discussions not only around issues of designing activities to teach science content, but also confronting how social issues such as racial inequity exist in science and education. For the teachers in the study, ISE approaches were also equity approaches as they allowed teachers to engage a range of learners and provide opportunities for their students to build positive experiences and identities around science.

Challenges to the ILETES project included being situated in a geographically large school district. Identifying a centrally located meeting spot was constraining for many teachers since it was, at minimum, a 45-minute commute from their schools. This contributed to inconsistent attendance; nonetheless, there were 3–5 teachers at each meeting and a core group of 5 teachers (out of 9) that participated for the entire three years. The teachers in the Collaborative were not active on social media, which resulted in limited interactions between meetings and infrequent dissemination of discussions and practices with a larger audience.

Despite these challenges, teachers shared with us that they found value in the Collaborative. As opposed to mandated professional development, the Collaborative was self-selected, thus participating teachers had an existing commitment to their own professional growth and learning. Further, the longitudinal nature of the group fostered a building of trust which also allowed for deeper conversations. Teachers received a stipend for their participation; however, two of the teachers who did not initially know they would receive a stipend were some of the most consistent participants.

(Re)defining ISE

For the Collaborative, the idea of ISE as a physical resource you can visit persisted, but participants extended their definition of ISE to also include the enactment of student-centered science teaching and learning. From analyzing audio recordings from the Collaborative meetings, dialogues with teachers about the Collaborative, and reflecting on facilitating-observing the group, the following central themes were found to have contributed to the evolution of teacher understandings and implementations of ISE:

  • Engaging in Unstructured Dialogues—The overarching goal of the Collaborative meetings was to share and discuss ISE practices. Teachers were encouraged to discuss their successes and frustrations around designing and enacting ISE-related practices in their classrooms. This allowed teachers to empathize with each other about their enactment challenges while at the same time collectively view constraints as opportunities for expanding their ISE practices. These unstructured dialogues also mirrored the open-ended, question-oriented, self-directed approaches that the teachers valued in their ISE learning experiences. The overarching question of “how do you incorporate what you learned in ISE in your classroom” allowed a range of discussions to emerge and provided expanded space for the sharing and co-generation of teacher knowledge.
  • Active and Shared Learning—The learning during the Collaborative meetings mirrored how learning happens in ISE contexts. The teachers learned through dialogues with each other and interactions with shared artifacts and resources. They also used ISE to informally structure their own in-situ professional learning because it created opportunities for them to observe their students engaging in science experiences. Teachers identified specific practices they viewed as consistent with ISE—questioning, observing, discussing, collaborating, critically thinking, imagining—and used these approaches to structure science teaching and learning in their classrooms, thus allowing students to make connections between science and their everyday lives in a meaningful way.
  • Centering Identities—Teachers collectively recognized that effective science teaching required them to humanize their learners and leverage the strengths that they bring to the classroom. They also discussed how racialization and other oppressions were constraints to effective science learning and ways that they worked in response to resist and transform these constraints. For example, they noted how the Black and Latinx schools typically do not have the science equipment and labs that were found in White, affluent schools. They described how this contributed to students’ lack of basic science skills, such as using a microscope or weighing objects using a balance. As many of the teachers in the Collaborative were also racialized and experienced deficit-oriented narratives themselves, the Collaborative provided a safe space for open discussions about these issues. This also offered visceral examples for participating White teachers who had not experienced similar oppressions that positioned all participating teachers to be better advocates for their students. Articulating ISE practices in relation to these discussions allowed teachers to forefront the social identities and learning needs of their students.
  • Leveraging Learners’ Strengths—The framing of ISE as being self-directed, emergent, and creative gave teachers the conceptual space to discuss and design strength-based approaches in their classroom. They viewed ISE as an opportunity to stand back and observe their learners and identify their areas of struggles and strength. ISE gave teachers the space to ask learners what interests them and design activities around those interests. ISE also allowed teachers to integrate popular cultural references and youth communication styles in the science learning space. The Collaborative teachers shifted focus from required curricular content to also include fostering student interest, engagement, and providing diverse learners with tools for success in the science classroom.

While individual reflection is important for teacher learning, our work shows that reflecting with others is also salient because it is in collaborative interactions that teachers are able to share, discuss, work together, and cogenerate meanings that have the potential to transform science teaching and learning to include more equitable, engaging, and creative practices.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant AISL #1254075. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Jennifer D. Adams is a Canada Research Chair and Associate Professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Amy DeFelice is a science educator and researcher in New York. Susan McCullough is a Distinguished Lecturer and Program Director for Art Education at Queens College, CUNY in Flushing, New York.

citation: Adams, J.A., A. DeFelice, and S. McCullough. 2022. Teacher-learning, meaning-making, and integrating ISE practices in diverse urban classroomsConnected Science Learning 4 (4).


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