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With, Not For: Why the Distinction Matters

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to write an article for the Association of Science and Technology Center’s Dimensions magazine. It starts with this reflection:

For most of my career in science and STEM education, I’ve worked at the interface between museums or other educational institutions and schools, finding synergies in their efforts to improve science learning experiences for kids and their teachers. When organizations work together, they can build on each other’s strengths, share resources, overcome obstacles, and fill gaps. Truly, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

I’ve spent most of my career working with schools from the outside—working with science-focused educational organizations as an employee or long-term consultant, but not ever directly on staff at a school or district. Much of that time has been spent designing and facilitating professional learning experiences for teachers. In the early days, I admit I failed to appreciate the distinction between developing programing for schools as opposed to with schools, but fortunately I learned fast. 

I was lucky that the science museum I worked at had an exceptional relationship with a nearby large, urban school district that allowed me to easily reach out to and work closely with district-level science specialists. This relationship helped me gain an appreciation for what a museum could learn from schools—not just what schools could learn from museums—and how we could work together to design museum programs for students and teachers to meet existing needs and maximize value and impact. Even though that was almost 20 years ago, I’ll never forget when the senior science specialist referred to the museum I was working at as the district’s best partner. This experience has shaped my professional values perhaps more than any other, and it is the type of informal-formal relationship I continue to strive for in my work and encourage others to develop.

Oftentimes, educators from informal settings focus on how the practices in our repertoire can be applied in the formal science classroom—essentially, how classroom teachers should do what we do. What we talk about less often is how practices commonly used in the science classroom can be of value to educators in informal settings. For example, centering science learning experiences on phenomena is an outgrowth of the NGSS, which clearly comes from the formal education sphere. Learning experiences in informal settings are also highly effective when the focus is on occurrences in the natural and human-made world that can be observed and cause one to wonder and ask questions (what is meant by phenomena). Similarly, classroom teachers have much more training and are usually more skilled than the average informal science educator when it comes to strategies for engaging students in group work, supporting students with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and constructive classroom management, and more. Further, my perspective on the role of vocabulary in science learning—a words as concepts, less-is-more approach—is entirely due to what I have learned during workshops for classroom science teachers. I’ve designed and delivered many professional learning experiences in my career, and some of my most impactful work has occurred while partnering with a teacher-leader. This experience allowed us to capitalize on each other’s strengths, compensate for individual gaps, and become better professional development facilitators. While it is important to recognize that in- and out-of-school learning environments have different features and constraints, maybe to a large degree good science teaching is good science teaching—regardless of setting. All the more reason to bridge the informal-formal divide and work together.

Beth Murphy, PhD (, is field editor for Connected Science Learning and an independent STEM education consultant with expertise in fostering collaboration between organizations and schools, providing professional learning experiences for educators, and implementing program evaluation that supports practitioners to do their best work. 

citation: Murphy, B. 2022. With, not for: Why the Distinction Matters. Connected Science Learning 4 (3).

STEM Informal Education

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